The brush of "experimental music" paints too broad a picture for
anyone in search of genre clarity.
Like the words "pop" and "rock," the term experimental simply covers too much ground. Technically, wasn't it an experiment when Korn released Path of Duality—a dubstep album—in 2011? Okay, maybe that was more of a cash grab, but at the end of the day, artists who build on familiar structures and distort traditional
reference points capture my interest more than do those braving the vague and abstract mire of the monolithic label "experimental."
Providence, Rhode Island artist Russian Tsarlag is a brilliant example of an act with clearer references, but no easy descriptors. The longtime moniker of musician, visual artist, writer and filmmaker Carlos Gonzales, Russian Tsarlag sounds familiar at some points while completely beguiling the listener at others. Shimmering, bare-bones guitar lines dot a landscape otherwise fortified by tape-loop ambience, affected samples and damaged percussion. Gonzales' voice only sometimes comes out of hiding, a restrained melodic sigh that cuts with clarity through an often foggy quavering dream. I don't usually like to defer to the overused "this band meets that band" trope, but when it comes to Gonzales, it's simpler to call up images of Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order by way of William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops.
The familiarity of elements like the guitar work, which is reminiscent at times of dream pop's heyday—think the bright and dreamy Mazzy Star—and a fairly tight song structure provide a solid jumping-off point for listeners to appreciate the more otherworldly leaps into Gonzales' more challenging abstract experimentation.
This is true of Gonazales' other mediums as well. Not simply a musician, he dabbles in film and graphic novels. Gonzales' 2016 short Comeback Kid, a
no-budget affair shot with a camcorder, is a boxing story told through distorted video with a Brechtian lack of proper sets, props or costumes. The dialogue is absurdist and silly, even while the foundation is something everyone has seen at least a million times since Rocky; though he strays from the safety of what we know, Gonzales still understands the importance of a narrative to which we might anchor our attention.
"I'm a fan of genre within storytelling or within music," he tells SFR. "It just works as a nice kind of skeleton. Something completely abstract or free-form, there's just so many avenues you could go down for it to get real muddy."
Even as Gonzales distorts or plays with formatting, his work feels inspired by its classic iterations, whether it be pop music or genre filmmaking. There is both a sincerity and even a will to abandon seriousness that creates something inviting across numerous disciplines. That ability to work in multiple fields helps clarify his vision of intimate weirdness. It's a practice he also applied to his newly released graphic novel Gates of Plasma, a bizarre 320 pages that interweaves love story, capitalistic ills and the supernatural. The graphic novel itself is a good medium for Gonzales; with the exception of his actors when filming, he says he prefers to create without collaboration.
"I like working alone," he explains. "A lot of the art that inspires me … didn't come out of a committee or a democracy."
He did have to develop his own stringent editing process, however, which keeps him focused while working alone. He is quite prolific, often releasing
several limited albums over the course of a couple of years. From that material he then culls a sort of "best of" series of tracks which, in turn, become his full-length releases. This compilation of the self fuels his music-making while serving as a force for what he decides to show the listening public. His latest, for example, the upcoming Out of Reach from North Carolina label Hot Releases, feels like a cohesive work rather than a scattershot compilation.
Russian Tsarlag comes to Santa Fe with Providence-based tour mate Dan Talbot, another purveyor of bizarro pop, as well as Minneapolis composer and visual artist Lee Noble, who recently completed a stint as an artist-in-residence at New Mexico's own White Leaves Artist Residency near El Rito.
Russian Tsarlag with Dan Talbot and Lee Noble
8 pm Wednesday June 12. $5-$10.
2889 Trades West Road, Ste. E