Sometimes music-making thrives on isolation, but a handful of abrasive, experimental Madison artists have found collaborators - abroad. The Internet makes that easy, but it's still an improbable feat when a musician in Madison and one overseas learn they share the same twisted muse, then develop the discipline and chemistry to make compelling recordings together. Three recent releases capture just that dynamic.
Horrid Red: Celestial Joy
Locally, Clay Ruby is perhaps best known for the black-metal savagery of Wormsblood and the ceremonial drone and guttural vocals of Burial Hex. But his list of international contacts and projects is exhausting. He counts himself a member of a Belgian band called Sylvester Anfang II, and he collaborated in Italy with a performance artist named Nico Vascellari, to name a couple. Brave Mysteries, the label Ruby runs with friend Nathaniel Ritter, plans to release cassettes by artists from Italy, Colombia, Germany and Russia.
Those who only know Ruby's heavier work will discover a completely different side on 2011's Celestial Joy, by Horrid Red. The band centers on vocalist Bunker Wolf, recording in Germany, and San Francisco multi-instrumentalist Edmund Xavier. The album ventures into the quieter and catchier side of post-punk, with Wolf's German-language rasp keeping everything just a little on edge. Ruby says his work with Horrid Red began with his adding here and there to Xavier's instrumentals, but eventually expanded to writing beats and keyboard parts, even engineering Wolf's vocal recordings.
Ruby joined Horrid Red on a West Coast tour last summer. He reports that in-person and remote collaboration can both be tricky and rewarding. "Many times I have constructed something for a song that Xavier can totally take out of context," says Ruby in an email. Then Xavier reinvents Ruby's idea, fruitfully, and that would never happen "if it weren't for a miscommunication (or total lack of communication) during the creative process."
Chagas and Schafer: Scalping the Wraith
Troy Schafer's approach to the violin ranges from cryptic elegance, with the avant-garde group Kinit Her, to outright scraping abuse at a recent Project Lodge solo set. His most recent release is the EP Scalping the Wraith, recorded with Portuguese multi-instrumentalist Paulo Chagas. The two came into contact when both were recording tracks for Italian composer Marco Lucchi's compilation Broken Arpeggios (which Schafer calls "a contemporary investigation on the power of the arpeggio beyond its usual accompaniment role").
Scalping the Wraith results from Chagas and Schafer's trying to improvise despite the distance. "[We discussed] basic phrasing before simultaneously recording separate tracks without hearing one another, then slapping the takes together," Schafer says.
The tracks, with titles like "Failed Wizardry and Drunken Mourning Over the Loss of a Pet Gerbil," draw on both classical training and an extreme willingness to wander. Chagas' assortment of woodwinds brings fluidity and melody to these experiments. Schafer's violin produces a lot of groans and squeaks in contrast, but these are expertly controlled. Their separate parts may feel jarring, but Schafer and Chagas work themselves into an eerie kind of synch.
Pink City: Designing Women
While Ruby and Schafer have both spent years playing in Madison, Mike Noto was feeling very much new in town when he formed Pink City. He moved here from Michigan last January and proceeded to face his first Wisconsin winter, the frustrations of searching for jobs, and political outrage at the Republican takeover of state government.
Shortly after, he began writing new songs with Jake Healy, a 20-year-old Welshman who attends college in Bristol, England. After meeting on a message board, the two discovered a common love of Public Image Ltd., Scratch Acid and the output of Amphetamine Reptile Records. They first collaborated on a cover of Minneapolis punk band Cows' "Shitbeard," then began work on Designing Women, a vicious cross of post-punk songwriting and noise-rock production.
Healy recorded most of the instrumental tracks while Noto screamed frustration into his laptop's built-in microphone, using a voice frighteningly harsh for a guy who's so soft-spoken in person. The two opening tracks, "Wrung" and "The Operator," make the best case for Pink City, with addictively solid drum-machine rhythms and smears of orchestrated instability from guitars and a cheap synth called a Monotron.
Like Ruby, Noto finds that the difficulty of recording remotely has its upside: "Sometimes things got lost in translation, which ended up actually working fine."