Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iron Curtain

It could be debated for months, maybe lifetimes, whether a record is worth $500. When that record is something like Steve Field's obscure minimal synth project Iron Curtain, little heard outside of California, the debate can intensify even further. Why would anyone in their right mind pay half a grand for a 4 track EP of droning synth from 1982? Is it because it's just an incredibly rare but brilliant slice of DIY vinyl or is there something more? Well, you'd actually have to have heard the album to know.

Like most obscure regional vinyl, Iron Curtain's sound requires some patience. At first blush it's childlike. The same chords, the same drum loop, and endless droning. But after about the fourth listen to something like "First Punk Wars" from the Tarantula Screams EP you hear something behind the hypnotic backbeat -- there's an atmosphere that develops over the 6 minutes of the song that's undeniably appealing. Sure, it's cheap and it's dirty synth but it's catchy. Field's is no great musician, he sings like a robot on lithium, but he lulls you into a nice place. A very '80s place that conjures up all sorts of images of arcades and Tron and better tomorrows and neon super highways. Then you listen to his queasy sci-fi lyrics and suddenly you're really loving it. I mean, who envisions Metropolis replayed as a punk apocalypse? Field's sings, "All the workers are slaves... wealthy families/took their sons to universities/in the first punk wars."

The EP opens with the title track, a humming droning combination of bass and clickety-click guitar that's cloaked in an industrial fog. It's reminiscent of Peter Schilling's early work but it's not clean -- it doesn't have that sanitized German slickness. The lyrics are some acid-trip about a screaming tarantula or so I gather (there's also something about a "racing car on fire.") He could be talking about something more important but it's not clear. What is clear is the hypnotic swing of the relentless beat -- it's cold but it's not scary.

"First Punk Wars" is the second track on the A side and like "Tarantula Screams" it's got a rollicking programmed beat that hammers away on auto like a Wesley Willis abomination but hey, this was 1982. It's like Field's just pressed play and then stepped up to the mic and let the accompaniment roll in the background -- the lyrics come and go seemingly without timing, just long interludes of the drone. And there's this feedback-like synth wail (or maybe that's actually a guitar) that blankets the whole song, you only hear it on the third or fourth listen but after you pick it out it's hard to hear past it. While "First Punk Wars" is hobbled musically it's quite compelling lyrically and conjures up all manner of Mad Max-ian images.

"The Condos" is the EP's finest track musically. The programmed beat is sped up but there's more going on besides the chugg-chugg of the bass guitar and the muted synth burbles. The lyrics are further developed, though again I don't really know what's happening other than "going to the condos/me and all my friends/moving to the condos..." and a bunch of futurist talk. The song really works because Field's plays the chorus up; this is certainly the only real "radio friendly" track in the lot. Though that might be stretching it a bit.

Lastly we've got "Love Can Never Die" which starts slowly -- with a simple Casio styled rock II beat -- but builds into a swirl of synth atmospherics and half-whispered vocals. Reminiscent of Pieter Nooten's "Sleeps with Fishes." This is lighter, peppier stuff and possibly the weakest track on the EP.

Fields and crew (Doug Norton (mini-moog) and Bruce Cooper (bass guitar) with the addition of Olga Torres) returned for the superior single "Terror Story" in '83. This one, like all the others, opens with a simple beat and some stabs at keys but Field's drone is gone and replaced by spoken lyrics and a haunting chorus. The song's about a killer -- from the perspective of the killer -- and despite the simplistic beat there's something incredibly evocative here. Disturbing but arty. "Can you feel my stare? / I see you walking by me..."

The flip side is "Anorexia" a traditional Field's track of simplistic programmed beats and synth drones.

The next single was '85's "Like a Family." It's slick and not droning. More a dance record than anything else. The B side "Telephone" is poppy mulch. Field's followed that in '87 with "Shadow" in '87. It continues the dance trend with all manner of New Order-like handclaps and some stringy guitar works. Hell, Field's even tries his chops at some real singing but fails pretty miserably. ("Drifted away/Crossing the state line") The sound isn't bad -- reminds me of the first Clan of Xymox album -- but it doesn't have the tortured obscurity of the EP of "Terror Story" single. It's like Field's threw down some Duran Duran and realized, Aha! that's how it's done.

So, is either one of these worth more than a few dollars? Who can say. What is clear after a good listen is that Steven Fields - whoever the man is - remains a fascinating unknown. A guy with a keyboard and thing for sci-fi who wound up in a Santa Barbara recording studio making records that aren't really easy to classify. Sure, minimal synth works but there's something "brut" about Iron Curtain. It's simple, monotonous and droning. The vocals are buried and obscure. The instruments cheap and fuzzy. But it sinks its claws into you if you've got a soft-spot for music cobbled together in a basement from dreams and hopes and whispers. Field's recordings are the things of record collector's fantasies -- unknown, unheard but fascinating relics from a hidden corner of the world. When you own it, you join a nearly unique club. Perhaps that's worth $500? I wouldn't know -- I just downloaded the ripped tracks.

Thanks to SomebodySomewhere for the rips.


Anonymous said...

makes me smile.

Anonymous said...

Terror Story '83
Tarantula Scream '84