Brutal Sound Effects

Irrational audio research at the Lab.


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For fifteen years, Brutal Sound Effects has been a vital element of the Bay Area's strong experimental electronic music scene, and its presence intensifies this month with eight concerts at the Lab. Based around the "high-speed electronic cardboard" costumed noise scene epitomized by Rubber O Cement's restless electronic sounds and low-budget costuming (since 1994), Brutal Sound Effects functions as a descriptive label for the music, as well as the official title of a long-running series of concerts.

The frontman of Rubber O Cement — costumed as an outer space mutant self-described as a "triple bat faced, burst pipe system on giant baby feet" — thrashes among a crowd of arms-crossed onlookers with its long "javelin bass" poised atop its head, ready to launch. The homemade bass is processed through constantly changing multi-effect patches, making it sound more like a battery of lasers and sci-fi weapons than a bass guitar. In the background, rendered in shabby-looking cardboard, a large supercomputer with a single spinning cog is the apparent source of a dense wall of harsh noise encompassing most of the frequency spectrum at once. The music, costumes, and theatrics match: all are confrontational, lo-fi, and hilarious. This is prototypical Brutal Sound Effects.

The name is most straightforwardly a humorous description of the aggressive sci-fi sounds of Rubber O Cement, but it also handily facilitates a break from the narrowing scope suggested by labeling the music "noise." "Sound effects" can refer to nearly any technique of electronic or recorded audio, and it is from the totality of this broad tradition that the musicians of this scene draw. Melody, harmony, rhythm, and other traditional musical concerns are usually forsaken to emphasize consideration of sounds themselves, following from the early pioneers of electronic muisc like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer. Still sharing loud and distorted sympathies with post-punk and -industrial noise musicians, their sound effects are indeed often brutal. Bonnie Banks, the main BSFX organizer, thinks of a typical performance as a chaotic amalgam of sound effects records filled with never-before-heard sounds, intensified with an absurd theatrical element: "sounds that could come off any dozen sound effects records played at once (and never before) with a rabid screeching zombie snowman head thrown on top."

David Slusser — a film sound professional who has worked with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and David Lynch — is another musician representative of the BSFX style. In performance, Slusser playfully explores the possibilities of his assortment of electronic gear — which he calls the Sluss-O-Matic — working up cross-modulating square waves and theremin-like noodling on old-school oscillators and an iPhone. Amid this abstraction, weird rhythmic moments sometimes surface with maddening delight. Slusser's special twist is floating a saxophone solo — highly distorted and feedback-drenched — over the electronic noise, with the sax blending elements of legato noise buzz and finger-tapping lead guitar wank. Slusser curiously tinkers with his gear rather than executing a developed performance. His best moments come in weird, non-developmental chunks that could easily be part of a pre-show sound check rather than the actual performance. Complete perplexity.

Slusser performs May 12 at Poodle Sound Effects #3, a program of music based on dog sounds, apparently inspired by a bad pun. Slusser's 35 years of film sound experience uniquely prepares him to accept the ridiculous challenge. "Although I can do some dog facsimile with the sax and Sluss-O-Matic (and might), I have a lot of actual dog recordings I've accumulated over the years. ... Among the most common audio cues I've had to supply ... were junkyard dogs, the lonely wolf-call, Doberman security, and the distant bark. I got more specific with John Connor's doomed German Shepherd in Terminator 2, and the pack of Dalmatians in Tucker. There I learned a lot about animal Foley. To simulate dog footfalls, you can tape press-on nails to the fingertips of leather gloves." With this experience filtered through Slusser's warped aesthetic sensibility, the results could be amazing — or perhaps no less dismal than the silly title of the show. That is the sort of risk with which this music thrives.

The connection to theatricality suggested by the "sound effects" tag continues as many of the musicians perform in costume, following the modus operandi of the influential Caroliner and Rubber O Cement — not to mention the absurd theatricality often employed by the electronic music pioneers of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. At a 2006 Godwaffle Noise Pancakes, Scummerai (performing May 29) constructed an impressive cardboard oil rig along most of a wall at ArtSF. The crew climbed aboard and made a god-awful electronic racket while the audience was joyfully transfixed by cardboard crabs climbing the walls and debris dangerously jettisoned into the crowd.

The first Brutal Sound Effects Festival was fifteen years ago at Klub Kommode, an underground space on 16th Street. Other early editions were at Clud Teuffel and the Clit Stop. It has continued bouncing from one venue to another — mostly underground and art spaces — for the past decade and a half, with the Lab hosting the 68th through 70th editions in the month of May. In recent years, Oakland's 21 Grand has also been a frequent venue for the event, hosting the 67th festival in March. Underground and nonprofit arts spaces are essential for this sort of noncommercial music to thrive at street-level, rather than at funded academic institutions.

Godwaffle Noise Pancakes is a noontime version of the Brutal Sound Effects Festival with pancakes and waffles included in the low price of admission. The afternoon sunshine and free-flowing food provide a relaxed atmosphere for presenting and workshopping developing sounds. Many noise musicians play their first show at this series, and the music itself often seems a bit underdeveloped. But the mellow atmosphere of a Sunday afternoon brunch makes this okay. It is a casual place for fresh and seasoned musicians to hang out with other interested parties, while providing a low-stress setting for greener musicians to get their start. The pancakes themselves are fairly experimental, often seeming more like blobs of Play-Doh coated in maple syrup than the mouth-watering gourmet breakfasts that have honored this series in the past.

Godwaffle got its start in 2000 as Pancakes at Pubis. Banks explains: "Brutallo, who would document all shows relating to experimental and noise stuff in the Bay around that time, wanted costumed Sid-and-Marty-Krofft-type Saturday morning sound effects in his living room [dubbed Pubis Noir]. He would buy pancake supplies and open the doors." After leaky ceilings put an end to the venue, the series took on a life (and name) of its own, bouncing to various San Francisco venues. Its longest-running home in recent years has been at the now-defunct ArtSF, just across the street from the Lab at 16th and Capp.

While not having any grand ideas about cultivating a movement, the highly active and exceedingly inclusive Brutal Sound Effects does wonders to sustain a thriving community of diverse local artists, despite the marginal status of their work. The Lab's Executive Director, Eilish Cullen, is excited to be partnering with Brutal Sound Effects in May. She calls their multiple series "vital springboards for emerging and underrepresented artists seeking exposure and legitimization," but Banks does not quite see it that way. "If you think about it like that, it sounds like there's a big thought behind it. If the result is good then that's the backlash. I hope and pray every night to a one-eyed microphone for sweet deliverance of sound hell."

Sound hell will be delivered in eight installments this month. See for full details.


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