New York in the 1960s

[Table of the Elements,]

For most people, hearing the name John Cale will automatically bring about visions of Velvet Underground. What people miss out though is a whole period of exploratory music before the Velvets and after they'd disbanded. This gorgeously packaged 3 CD box set [housed in a wooden box] features Cale's perhaps three most important pieces, all of which date between 1965 and 1969. All culled from Tony Conrad's private collection that was quickly gathering dust, it represents an important facet of musical history that has been left by the wayside for too long.
First CD in the set - "Sun Blindness Music" features three pieces that challenge the listener's patience and the willingness to open up to new sounds. Without giving everything away, the momentous 42 minute title piece, was recorded on a Vox Continental organ. For the whole duration, Cale forces sound out of the organ that is as minimal as it is disturbing. While the dissonance level is kept to a maximum, there are moments when Cale slows down and takes a back seat to the proceedings at hand. There's no talk of melody or harmony here. Rather, Cale concentrates on the persistence of the "found" sound of the organ. You get a distinct impression he's playing the role of a young kid at Christmas, who has just unwrapped his first instrument. Sometimes noise, sometimes harsh washes of sound and sometimes just pleasant minimal drone; the piece is an almighty prayer to the drone. The remaining two pieces on the first disc are somewhat more ear-friendly to those with a delicate sense of hearing. While "Summer Heat" is a mesmerizing, percussive-heavy guitar-driven track that is bathed in heavy distortion, "The Second Fortress" sees Cale at the helm of the Vox organ again. This time around, the result is more conducive to actual drones. It sounds like a cut'n'paste with tape, and the effect is akin to some of today's best ambient/electronic landscape artists.
"Dream Interpretation: Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume II" continues what the previous disc began. The twenty minute title track sees Cale manipulating tones on violin and electric viola. While the track has a heavy amount of glitching feedback, once again, heavy drone sounds appear right from the start. Categorically, this doesn't sound anywhere like the two instruments that are actually being played. In fact, I hear more qualities of the Moog than anything else. On "[Untitled] For Piano" Cale goes on to explore the inside of the piano. With what sounds like sticks and bows, he stringently caresses the strings and walls of the instrument, all to quite interesting effect. I'm not entirely sure what he's doing on the all-too-brief "Carousel", but it sounds like a slowly revving engine accompanied by someone chewing something crunchy. Finally, on the closing "Hot Scoria", Angus MacLise plays a cimbalom, while Cale accompanies him on a jingly guitar. Though the two aren't really playing in complete unison, you feel they've created something that is as mis-matched as wearing two different colours of socks. This gives the piece an ominously strange feeling.
The final disc in the set "Stainless Gamelan: Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume III" is perhaps the most accessible of the bunch. The opening piece "Stainless Steel Gamelan" features a duo improvisation centered on John Cale and Sterling Morrison who play cembalet [which is actually a small cimbalom] and fretless guitar. The sounds they draw from their instruments are haunting and consistently soothing. The nearly 27 minute long "At About This Time Mozart Was Dead And Joseph Conrad Was Sailing the Seven Seas Learning English" features John Cale and Sterling Morrison on viola, guitar and wollensack. Through variety of modulations and by adding heavy tape edits, Cale creates a landscape that resembles planes bombarding the land below, mashed with machine-like sounds and robotic, other-worldly glitches. Though the piece has a specific beginning, middle and end, certain ghostly similarities persist that make it possible to listen to this as much end to front and front to back. "Terry's Cha-Cha" features spliced soprano saxophone work of Terry Jenings that is further complicated by Cale's wollensack, while Angus MacLise establishes a loose rhythm on the hand drums. Another highlight is "Big Apple Express" that features Cale on viola and tape, while the New York Fire Department is given credit for the vocal [though you wouldn't be able to tell the source of the field recording if you tried].
Obtuse while retaining a shimmering quality of normalcy. Strange with a small "s" and essential as air, "New York in the 1960s" sees the first complete gathering of Cale's most crucial work in one place. Brilliant and influential as hell!

- Tom Sekowski

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