At Land’s Edge is a creepy and wonderful piece of art that will more than likely inspire a mind-altering live experience.
By Kathleen Burke
To say that at first listening the album At Land’s Edge composed by brothers Roger (Mission of Burma, The Alloy Orchestra) and Ben (The Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra, Degeneration) Miller induces a visceral reaction is like saying being stung by 100 angry wasps may be a bit uncomfortable. The album is definitely not easy listening, nor is it anything that you will likely hear at the next party or bar you visit, and that is entirely the point.
M2’s At Land’s Edge is not only an album but a challenging piece of art, and like most fine works of art ,it is sure to be misunderstood by some. Instrumentation includes the “prepared piano,” which is played by Roger, who incorporates items such as ear plugs and a guitar slide to manipulate sound. And there’s the “prepared multiphonic guitar,” which is played by Ben, who uses various pickups, chains, violin bows, and other non-musical treats to create sounds that are not immediately identifiable as guitar at all.
The opening track, “Invitation From Land’s Edge,” is one of the kookiest of the eight song album. “Looming” offers an atmospheric tribal sense, as if the music was composed for some sort of primitive jungle scene. In fact each song, for me, conjured up a very specific visual scene, musical storytelling at it’s best. Without the guidance of vocals and lyrics, the listener is encouraged to muse on what each song means emotionally and visually. “Pitch Lake” begins as if Mother Goose is playing nursery rhymes with a head full of acid. There are moments of what one may think of as a “normal” acoustic piano sound, and then sounds of metallic clangs and what could be conceived as sawing. Is Mother Goose beheading her children? Only M2 knows for certain.
“Submerged” evokes images of an underground traffic jam from hell, a zombie version of David Lynch driving the listener into the depths of insanity. But before you are taken to the Black Lodge, “Tenuous Properties of Navigation” takes you on an intergalactic sonic adventure that continues with “Trigger for a Metamorphosis,” which for a few bars sounds like Tears for Fears being played through a black hole, before more industrial-sounding tones signal either the demise of the digital age or an alien invasion. I’m not quite sure which. “Interior Locale” is like waking up in a dream hovering on the brink of a nightmare features what sounds like a crying child, its voice distorted through M2’s performance. The album closes with the brash Orson Wellesian “Epicenter and Aftermath,” whose title accurately describes the journey you have just taken listening to M2’s At Land’s Edge.” This album is a creepy and wonderful piece of art that will more than likely translate to a mind-altering live experience.
I had a chance to ask Roger and Ben some questions via e-mail about their musical projects including M2 and At Land’s Edge, which releases this Saturday at Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA. These guys are prolific musicians, and they’re not slowing down any time soon.
Arts Fuse: At Land’s Edge is obviously a serious departure from the work Roger has done with Mission of Burma and is somewhat more in line with Ben’s solo work with Degeneration. What was the inspiration behind this project? How did the two of you decide to work on At Land’s Edge, and why release the album now?
Roger Miller: I had an art show of my frottage drawings at the Abaton Gallery in Jersey City, and Ben and I decided to improvise music for the event. The moment I hit a couple of prepared piano notes and stroked some inner strings and then heard Ben hit a few notes I was certain immediately that we needed to make a record.
On the other hand, I have done so many other types of music than Mission of Burma in the past (including the prepared piano/drums duo of The Binary System) that M2 definitely fits into my sonic spectrum. The album was slated for release on Table of the Elements, but the label folded just before our disc was going to come out. So we found Feeding Tube Records, out of Northampton, to release it.
Ben Miller: Roger and I did two performances with this prepared piano / prepared guitar set up, once in 2006 at Abaton Garage in Jersey City for Roger’s frottage art opening and once in 2008 in Brooklyn at Goodbye Blue Monday. Both shows went well, so we recorded in fall of 2008. At that time, my “DGen” sound was beginning to transition toward a more ambient approach. With Michael Beiyrlo at the helm, the recording translated very well. At Land’s Edge wasn’t released until recently because we waited a long time on a release decision with Table of Elements that never came through.
AF: How long did it take to prepare for recording? Did you have an idea of how many pieces you wanted to lay down?
RM: Well, we knew what instruments we were going to play, and the piano and the guitar were certainly not going to sound very much like a traditional piano/guitar work. Because we planned to do no overdubs, just the duo improvising, we wanted a really nice sound from the basic recording. Michael Bierylo, a professor of musical technology at Berklee and a long-time producer we have worked with, agreed to do the recording. We chose the Lilypad in Inman Square because they had a great piano that they were happy to have “prepared,” and the room was lively. Other friends contributed high-end gear, so the recording is actually one of the best recorded sounds I’ve ever been involved with.
BM: The process during recording was spontaneous and intuitive. Very little was said specifically before any given piece. There are two solos: a piano solo that Roger presented with a motific idea and my solo using two violin bows. There was one piece we decided should have a sense of a back beat, so we counted off one, two, three, four. It didn’t work well enough to put on the record. Much later, we gave illustrative song titles to each piece, according to its mood.
AF: The album is entirely improv. How did that work during the recording process? Did you have vague motifs in mind, or was everything of the moment?
RM: Everything was of the moment. Ben would have to alter his electronic effects, but given that my piano was already prepared, I just deduced what keys to hit or whether I’d use a guitar pick or guitar slide on the strings. Very spontaneous. Very rarely did we initially agree on a starting point, but that was it.
KB: The band sounds range from the ethereal to percussive—at times the guitar and piano are unidentifiable. What techniques were used to modify your instruments? How are bolts and alligator clips incorporated into the piano performance? What can you tell our readers about the multiphonic guitar?
RM: Regarding the prepared piano. It was developed by the master John Cage. He developed the basic techniques people use, but anyone who does this sort of thing very much incorporates some of their own changes. I use a lot of brass bolts placed between the strings, which yields a gong-like sound, but my other staple is using alligator clips, a technique I got from guitarist Fred Frith. If you afix three alligator clips in different spots on the strings used for a specific note it pulls the harmonics off-center. It is quite other-worldly.
Rubber sheathes used for electronics produce a peculiar muted ‘thunk,’ a sound on the “marimba” side of things. I also use metal washers on top of alligator clips to add “sizzle,” ear plugs to mute strings. Often I’ll leave one octave unprepared to allow for minimal pitched content, and I’ll also use a guitar slide in that area, producing a slide piano. And guitar picks strumming the bass harp produces a wash or scrape that produces a scratchy animalistic sound that sometimes works well with some of Ben’s sounds.
BM: Here is a link that explains all you need to know about my multiphonic guitar.
AF: Will you be performing each piece as it sounds on the album? Did you have to go back and re-learn the songs after they had been recorded, or will each show be improv?
RM: We will use a couple of At Land’s Edge pieces as a general map, often just as a starting point. After that, the similarity ends! We’ll improvise from there and find out what happens as it unfolds. But, as Ben may have pointed out, we began playing music together in 1967 and formed our first all-original rock band, Sproton Layer, in 1969. The latter incorporated a lot of free-rock improvisation. So we have been, off and on, doing this together for many, many years.
BM: We have been using some motifs/approaches from the album in recent concerts. These are used to help create similar moods, and we have two new pieces we are fleshing out. But a good 90% of our performances are purely improvised on the spot. The structures are only skeletal.
AF: You’ve already played a release show in NYC, and this coming weekend the band releases At Land’s Edge in the Boston area. Do you plan on more shows to support the album?
RM: Currently that’s all we have planned, a big part due to our own busy schedules with other bands. Mission of Burma has a new album coming out in July, and we will be touring a lot in September and December. And Alloy Orchestra will be touring a lot in October and November, so . . . ain’t much room left! And Ben is touring a lot in the summer with Glenn Branca and other entities. But we definitely plan to continue M2 into the future. Our NYC show was really fun, and we found the “M2 Groove” immediately.
AF: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about M2, At Land’s Edge, or any of the other projects either of you are involved in?
BM: I will be doing a solo performance concert using an alto saxophone with FX and various tape decks (currently on tour). In these performances, I explore the use of internal/external feedback. The current tour also supports the publication of my first novel On the Brink, 109 pages of absurdist surrealism.
My other project is the 13-member Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra for which I compose and conduct. There is a CD release party coming up at 17 FROST on June 30. The S.S.O. will perform revised movements from my “Symphony of Suspicious Activity,” ending its set with Terry Riley’s IN C (w/visual projection by Orin Buck and dance by Bodydrama).
At Land’s Edge LPs will be available for sale at the release show on 6/23
Listen to M2 tracks here.
Purchase LP with download card here.
Go here to purchase digital album ($7) or tracks.