Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Rise and Self-Euthanasia of Miss High Heel

From the liner notes to the 2008 Blossoming Noise CD "The Family's Hot Daughter" by Miss High Heel:

"Miss High Heel was an irrational response to extraordinary stimuli. She was conceived in late 1995 by Windy City visitor Tom Smith, Lake Of Dracula singer James "Marlon" Magas, and me. I don't recall the exact circumstances of the band's genesis, but Tom had recently arrived from Miami and was crashing in a loft with Marlon, sound engineer Elliot Dicks, and future piano-jazz homunculus Azita Youseffi. (I'd been so inspired by The Galen, Duotron, Couch, The Many Moods of Marlon Magas, The Scissor Girls, and The Flying Luttenbachers, all of whom either supported or collided with To Live and Shave in L.A. during our "Helen Butte" tour of the American Midwest, that I endeavored to fuse with them, or at least create ungovernable music with them.) The group's name was borrowed by Tom from a tawdry 50s pulp novel "Miss High Heels" - that he'd purchased for 45 cents at N. Milwaukee Avenue's Myopic Books. (Consult Wigmaker's "The 'Rose' the Vehicle of Miss High Heels" for further analysis.) We used that pluralized moniker before deciding that our lovely heroine might be even more alluring with just the one leg . . . I do remember some discussion with Tom about wanting the band to have a harmolodic, organic undercurrent, so we cadged the double bass guitar team of Chuck Falzone and William Pisarri from the ten-current Luttenbachers line-up and added Azita and Jim O'Rourke on dual synthesizers to flank my blast-beat drum torrents. Les the animal enter the ark à l'écart, the sonic conterparts for my percussion onslaughts were Tom's violently fragmented tape edit backing tracks made from random brutal death metal CDs. These barking, stuttering collages created a meta-structure for the group to improvise upon and we would start and stop religiously in conjunction with them. At the front line, Tom and Marlon issued lyrical assaults with a very intuitive sense of partnership, oscillating rapidly between unison, call-and-response and pure collision. (We thought of ourselves as a thoroughly ersatz Sam and Dave, nonpareil gulag crooners with chlorpromazine to spare.) Truth told, Miss High Heel only performed live twice - once on New Years' Eve 1995/96 at the Magnatroid (with the entire ensemble, save for compere and Boat Of veteran Mike Green, in their skivvies) and less than a week later at Northeastern University's WZRD radio (sans O'Rourke, "immortalized" on the "Split Wax Cylinder Inscribed: Beast 661" CD of yore). Tom was on a roll in early '96, cranking out a slew of albums and sundry recordings from Elliot's Arschloft studio (The Scissor Girls' "S-T-A-T-I-C-L-A-N-D", Duotron's dub-inflected cri de coeur, "Duotron vs. Tom Smith", the solo debut from Die Electric Eels' Brian McMahon, "17 Volts", and the initial demos from drug-grind duo Aborted Christ Childe). By the time we embarked on the MHH studio sessions, most of the work was done in strictly overdub form, with people coming in one-by-on (or by -twos) to lay down frothing improvised mania over the macabre prerecorded blast tracks. (The bloody control room was too small to accommodate more than four mutants per sitting; ensemble tracking was impossible.) Nandor Nevai and Jodie Mecanic were soon drawn into the fold, and their acidic wit and remarkable brio were crucial to undergirding the demonic narrative. Tom was becoming totally obsessed with his own pre dub style of mixing, and this explains the odd sparseness and drunken attack of the production, contrasting with the frantic density of the live unit.

As Miss High Heel said what she needed to say, we never convened again."

- Weasel Walter (and Tom Smith), September 24, 2007.


Tom and I both agreed upon the above notes more than a decade after the fact, so either that's the gosh-durn truth, or, at least, what we want to remember about it. Ha ha ha.
I do remember the New Years' Eve gig at Jeff Day and Emily O'Hara's long-defunct venue/home The Magnatroid. The venue consisted of this huge, decrepit stone building with a gigantic boiler in it and lots of nooks, cubbyholes and caverns. It was extremely raw, dirty and borderline hazardous, but it was a great place to have a show. Jeff and Emily (the erstwhile rhythm section of Monitor Radio as well as frequent period cohorts of the Bobby Conn band) were riding the wave of energy still surging through our scene at that time in Chicago and they were very gracious to run the space and help everybody out. Jeff was an active taper at the time, so many of the shows are probably well-documented on cassette someplace. We definitely played in our underwears. As noted in the liners, our tacit modus operandi was to make as much dense noise as we could, starting and stopping with the backing tape. Tom and Jim had serious text they preached over the din and they basically had to scream their living guts out to be heard. The other main band on the gig was Xerobot, the quirky math-punk unit hailing from Madison, Wisconsin which later fragmented into Numbers, Trin-Tran and My Name Is Rar-Rar.

The WZRD session was amusing. I remember that we were all in different rooms, so it seemed like most of us had no eye contact with more than one other person at a time. I believe I remember having my drums set up in some secluded corner, and I was listening to the backing track on the headphones at excruciating volume while frantically cueing Bill or Chuck to start or stop. He would cue somebody else and the telephone game would continue as such on down the line resulting in a hilarious, continual train wreck. The spontaneity and energy of the event is definitely evident on the 1998 "Split Wax Cylinder" CD. There are no cuts: the performance unveils in real time, warts and all. There's plenty of snappy repartee between numbers (this group was full of smart-asses, myself included certainly) and a level of cocksure bombast that could only be generated by people who are young and completely full of their own shit. The "producer" of the album (who shall remain nameless) insisted on the completely retarded, flatulent mastering style heard on the disc. He seemed to think that it was HIS release(?) and was adamant about trying to put his funny little stamp all over the CD any way he could. The pocketbook was nestled in his stinky pants and we wanted this thing to come out, so we all just shrugged our shoulders and let him have his fun. That said, I'm not unhappy with this release at all!

At some point in 1996, Aaron Dilloway released a cassette of rough mixes from the studio sessions on his prolific Hanson imprint. I would doubt many know this item exists. I haven't listened to this tape since the mid-to-late '90s but I have to say that I'm enjoying it very much right now. Unlike the stark, porous, dub-influenced mixes on "The Family's Hot Daughter", the versions on this rare tape veer towards a relentlessly full-bore approach. Not every musician or instrument is evident on every track, and there aren't many vocals at all, but the sound is face-rippingly dense and dominated by the saturated distortion of Tom's outré "in the red" mixing style. This is an artificial sound of maximum compression and overdrive - strata upon strata of white noise rising and falling with violent rapidity, blurring the concept of recording fidelity itself. The whole thing is extremely random and out of control, volume levels and stereo panning lurching from side to side, forward and back. I'm glad it exists.

As far as those studio sessions laid down at the loft, I recall being locked in the small drum room (where the early Lake Of Dracula practices took place), and just trying to beat the fuck out of the drums as fast as I could while trying keep the headphones on and anticipating the abrupt starts and stops of the tape. I did a bass clarinet overdub at one point and it involved every single "extended" technique I could muster: rubbing the body of the horn with the bell, playing it with no mouthpiece, blowing through it with no neck, squealing on the mouthpiece alone, yelling into the bell, battering the keys for percussive sounds, ad nauseam. Jodie Mecanic and Nondor Nevai both executed completely unhinged vocal takes, with Jodie affecting some kind of mongoloid/demon/sex-kitten glossolalia and Nondor screaming and grunting his guts out. I don't recall much more than that. As Tom noted, it was absolutely impossible for all of us to be in the studio at the same time.

I recall that Tom mixed those tapes for a long, long time. I can only imagine how many different takes are in his archives. Part of me wishes I could seize the multitrack masters and do a big, clean, evenly-balanced mix, just to see what the hell is actually hidden on those reels. The other part of me realizes that would be completely against the ethos of the entire short-lived project.

Finally, we come to the hoary gates of the imposing 77-minute sonic gargoyle known as "The Family's Hot Daughter" - the ultimate net result of all those hours of Tom's endless, possessed audio engineering. I will admit I have never sat through the whole thing, but I will attempt to do so right now and comment upon the experience.

What is so unctious to me about FHD is the near-constant, overmodulated stucco coating of ugly digital distortion permeating it. This brutish aliasing has a certain hideous, burlap-like abrasion which is extremely unpleasant on a visceral level. It's not like some forgiving analog square-wave fuzz; its nature is much more amorphous and unsettling, like an aural cancer which is difficult to catagorize. It is the sound of true chaos, not the well-worn tubesock of nice "noise" most people have come to love and accept in extreme music. It doesn't color the music as much as it vandalizes it. Despite being sonically oppressive, this quality becomes a significant leitmotif for the psychodrama which is Miss High Heel.

Almost 13 minutes pass before any coherent vocals appear, and when they do, it's a bit of a relief. The opening salvo is so harsh and alienating, I find myself begging for a sign of humanity, and it finally appears in the form of "Bad By Proust 'A'". Suddenly individual elements become more obvious: the drums, the basses, the bass clarinet. For a few moments one is lulled into complacency, believing this may have become just another avant-skronk record. The most fascinating aspect of this music is the vocal approach. Tom, Jim, Nondor and Jodie are really stretching here. Sometimes Tom and Jim meld into each other, slipping into a languid, tortured unison drawl. It's very unguarded and cathartic in a way that might be impossible to achieve within more rigidly codified and structured formats. Essentially, Miss High Heel was performing high-energy free music with a set of rich metatextual information, vis a vis the backing tracks and the very specific syntactical canvas of words.

The triptych of "The Fucked 'Aunt' Moment", "'Ahhhhhh-Her' Series The The Arched" and "Shoving It Travelling" are Jodie Mecanic's showcase pieces. On "Fucked", she evokes the confusion of an abduction victim lapsing erotically into a bout of the Stockholm Syndrome. It is frightening and comedic simultaneously. Bill's clarinet emerges from the mix to taunt her before a morbidly spacious conclusion. "Series" is a continuation of the theme, with vocals and clarinet almost completely unobstructed and a peppering of Tom's voice towards the end. By the middle of the CD, it seems as if the arc of the program has pushed beyond mere frenzy and has reached a different state of being. Perhaps this distinctly feminine geist has a calming effect on the fracas?

"Rose Aw Suck" might be the climax of the album. It is the longest and most complex track, glancing 10 full minutes. It seems to deliberately introduce most of the cast one by one, as if they are each taking a final curtain call before diving mindlessly into the burning chasm of Hades. This piece is obviously the swan-song of Miss High Heel. It is a chilling portrait of group mental disturbance and randomness. There is a long segment of abstract solo bass clarinet by myself near the end of the piece. It is lonely, bordering on destitute. Just as it winds down, a screeching vignette of Jodie and Nondor keeps the mania intact.

Two live tracks from the New Year's show act as a sort of coda. The fidelity is shockingly detailed for a lo-fi recording and all of the ensemble members are audible. In particular, O'Rourke and Azita's fleet synthesizer wrangling is the main event on these cuts. There is some actual rhythm section interplay between myself and the two bass players evident here. We seemed to silently understand that starting and stopping together during the pieces would aid the overall momentum. As a subset of MHH, Chuck, Bill and I were used to throwing each other tons of cues in The Flying Luttenbachers, so we were able to enact this strategy successfully.

"It Reports I Practiced Ignorance" wraps up in a lovingly fastidious, succinct manner at 1:28 duration. The opening segment is a hilarous feedback and reverb-drenched snippet of Nondor and Jodie improvising together. They are understanding each other completely despite the fact that they are using total nonsense as raw material. The final third arrives with a soft surge of digital feedback which reveals a short loop of electronic synth detritus with Mike Green talking on top. It morphs into a frament of backing tape music before dissipating into a wisp of echo.

There's something oddly poignant about actually finishing this cd for once. It seems to begin as a blatant aesthetic affront, and then gradually transforms itself into a scorched-earth requiem mass. I hadn't noticed this long line before. I recommend giving "The Family's Hot Daughter" serious attention if you bother to check it out because it is a complex work and there is much more to it than immediately appears.


bruitiste said...

The Hanson tape probably deserves to be ripped to FLAC or mp3 and shared so the "masses" can hear... I have the two MHH discs but this release has eluded me for years.

ugEXPLODE said...

I will discuss this with the band members and make a post if everybody agrees. Good idea.