“factories may contain a lot of noise but that noise does not meet the terms of music. No wonder they like the sound of the quite descent engineering if they like the sound of a factory chugging away” – ’nuff sed’, comment on ‘How Do They Make It?! Music (Mammoth Beat Organ)’, 2018.
Dedicated to the enduring wisdom and grace of YouTube commenters.
Confession. I’m not a massive fan of instrument builders. Is that allowed, is my opinion okay with you? All too often I find that something beautifully and intricately engineered (or with an eccentric stage setup) produces some crushingly unimaginative music. And that’s not just the ones who are obvious candidates for fleeting viral interest. I saw a live set recently by the dude who builds those mad-looking guitars for Sonic Youth. From what I could see, the stage featured several plastic bottles of ominous glowing liquid all wired up; several wooden arms and automata fragments; the severed, exorcised head of a toy baby doll; and a wire stretching across the whole stage front, requiring extensive sound-tech setup and warnings that it would be “My Bloody Valentine loud”. Result? Really fucking boring techno. The engineering was okay i suppose but the sound is a disgracfull.
Graham Dunning and Sam Underwood are a BUNCH OF HIPPIES who do things a bit differently. The result of months of research the Horniman Museum in London (and Twitter feeds that collectively look like they’re building the world’s biggest Rube Goldberg machine) is a contraption they call Dunning & Underwood Mammoth Beat Organ (I think that stands for something but am not sure what ??). Hand-built using bicycle wheels, treadmill motors and parts sourced from the industrial products section of eBay, the MBO (as I’m calling it here) consists of multiple separate, interchangeable sound generators driven by a central motorised drive, which can create – amongst other things – drones, beats, sequences, percussion patterns and a racket of sounds all sounding completely off beat and out of key. The video below demonstrates what it can do far better than I can ever hope to explain:
The initial (!) fruits of experimentation with the MBO project are recorded here for the fifth installment of Front & Follow’s ongoing series of collaborative tapes, The Blow. These recordings signal a creative leap from Underwood’s commissioning work and Dunning’s Mechanical Techno project (watch demo it better than me explain). Being a device made up of several interlocking and interchangeable units, the MBO best reflects and embraces the sonic potential and chaotic unpredictability of a modular synthesiser. Components can be switched in and out (albeit perhaps not easily), creating an open-ended system of sound-making – the result of which, to some extent, is dictated and characterised by physical, acoustic noise (wind and air, the squeak of the drive, the switching of gears, the rustling movement of the operators). The project fosters a visibility, openness and playfulness that’s something of a welcome antidote to the clandestine tech-elitism of yr standard-issue Eurorack bro.
Just from the opener ‘Song For Chimney Stacks’, you know that this going to be unique. A wavering fug of air inflates and bursts. Mesmerising twirl and dance of delicate but delirious organ voices spill out in the surround. Flutter and birdsong! You can hear the mechanism at work throughout – bellows crank and puff, creating a ghostly rhythmic undertow as it pushes and sequences air through an interchangeable array of loose organ pipes. Sounds scatter. Patterns appear and shift imperceptibly (there’s some very In C stuff going on here). It’s an astonishing, bracing and unexpectedly joyous opening track. A group of sounds with feeling and a sense of euphoria – a rush of excitement!
Other tracks have a much denser and more forbidding atmosphere, betraying their mechanical birth somewhat. The mood of ‘Trapped in a Walled Garden’ is set by the title, but also by the weighty bass carved out of a revolving tom drum and the sinister irregular tinkle and coppery clatter of chains on a cymbal (driven by an irregular wheel). Droning, slimy percussion sustains for the duration, abruptly sliding and dropping off the humming drone at the close. A creepy effect to close a dank, cluttered cellar of a piece; filled with fragmented antiques, tangled jewellery and the alarming odd-clank of animal (you hope) bones. ‘Padlocks on Bridge’ is even more claustrophobic. Audibly clunky wheels and sparse organ toots suggest wet gristle sloshing against rotting timber. A blunt thud. Cymbals emit sharp, noxious fragrance. Sequences of lighter wind organ seek to arrange the clack and squelch around them. They do so, but only fleetingly, and the piece as a whole evokes a rickety majestic structure heaving up out of swamp. To my mind it’s the most compellingly dense cut on the tape, one that I’m still unravelling as I’m writing.
To counter this impression of the doom and gloom that I’ve given – and any predilection to chin-strokery – there is a lot of goofy fun here (you’d be disappointed if there wasn’t, right?). Rhythmically, the MBO can slip serendipitously between funk, house, techno, jazz, jungle, gabba and even some mutated swing at points. ‘In Suggestible State’ sounds like an all-night rave in a grandfather clock – hyperventilating click and frantic strings mutate in swirly house flecked with frenzied, dulcimer-like swoosh. Some cello-y creak, ASMR-tingle and comical tone-sculpting and pitch-bending (made through sucking air out a snare) punctuates the rattly conveyor belt mechanism of ‘Acorn Factory’.
The most raucous cuts come right at the end though, as the BPM on the central drive shaft whirls everything up to hardcore speeds. The motorcycle-like revving that opens ‘Odd Duty’ is a little on the nose in this respect, but the carnivalesque EBM and elephantine antique-dresser skronk that ensues justifies it, I suppose. Imitations of the wheeze, rev and splutter of an engine trace an outline of fuel pumped to the rotaries. ‘Demon’ meanwhile just opts for glorious out-and-out jungle madness. A flutter of life in some frantic panting bellows; a stern organ growl; a crisp, jumpy snare. Then, well, paint pot splitter-splatter and some pretty freeform bass honk. Words don’t really cover it – just lose yr shit to the automaton already!
The Blow #5 is a sonically and musically vast document of Dunning and Underwood’s (initial) experiments with an ambitious and temperamental invention. The joy of this project is the uniqueness of the music, and the fluidity of its output. Get past the initial noise and there’s a wealth of potential. Whether you’re an eclectic listener, no matter your preference from Nessun Dorma to drum all the way to hardstyle to the arctic monkey, there’s something there. And there is something thrilling in the artists’ own admission that the record documents their attempts to come to terms with the whims and surprises of the machine, and that this is only the beginning. ITS NOISE MUSIC. THIS COMMENT OS FROM SOMEONE WITH A VERY ECLECTIC TASTE IN MUSIC BUT THIS IS JUST GOOD.
Would you pay to hear that? Would you by their album that sounded like that? If so, you can pre-order the tape here– it’s out on February 22nd. Also do check out the videos (with rich commenter insight), live performances and further information on the Mammoth Beat Organ here.