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Review: Tony Conrad & Jennifer Walshe – In the Merry Month of May

Few artists have managed to exert such a wide influence over the musical landscape of the last sixty or so years as Tony Conrad, and probably none have done so while retaining an unwavering commitment to experimentalism. Conrad collaborated with John Cale, La Monte Young, John Cage and Faust. He was a member of Fluxus and the Theater of Eternal Music. He helped define the parameters of drone and minimalism as we know them today, while his visual art and film has been exhibited in the MoMA, the Whitney and the Louvre. He inadvertently named the Velvet Underground and was partly responsible for developing their distinctive sound, and later in his career, he worked with Jim O’Rourke, Genesis P-Orridge and Charlemagne Palestine.

Conrad died in 2016 from prostate cancer but was active throughout his later years. One of his most fruitful collaborations was with Dublin-born composer and experimental vocalist Jennifer Walshe. Walshe’s pedigree is hardly less impressive than Conrad’s: she is Oxford University’s Professor of Composition, her works have been performed all over the world and she has collaborated with or performed the work of dozens, if not hundreds, of the contemporary music scene’s leading lights. The pair’s final piece of work, and the last thing Conrad recorded before his death, In the Merry Month of May, was made over seven years ago and is finally seeing the light of day.

Why it took so long is anybody’s guess. From the first few seconds of the title track, it’s clear that we’re in for a wild, transgressive ride. Walshe’s technique involves exhausting the linguistic and aural possibilities of a short vocal phrase, stretching syllables beyond their comfort zones. She utilises the imperfection of repetition within a loose improvisatory framework, so that the frayed edges of language, changing and progressing slowly, become the focus. Conrad’s scraping drones – think The Black Angel’s Death Song stretched on a rack and buried in a peat bog – act as a dark, warped mirror for Walshe’s vocalisations.

Well You Would is all foreboding low-end groans and percussive thuds, while Walshe’s twisted and double-tracked vocals make a dark curse out of the most quotidian of phrases. The thick, bulging nature of the music sounds like a threat in itself. He Only Had One Paw sounds like freak-folk experimentalists Jackie-O Motherfucker being chopped to bits on a patch of wasteland and eaten by foxes. Walshe adds hoots, squeals, clicks and incantatory glossolalia to her elastic repertoire of sounds, and Conrad’s scratchy plucked and bent strings sound like an animal’s reinterpretation of country music.

Wake Up takes a simple observation – everything will be fine – in weird, wonderful and worrisome directions. The results are neurotic and oddly funny, and Conrad’s skittering backdrop is accordingly playful. He’s Definitely Not the Type continues the darkly humorous vein but ratchets up the musical claustrophobia with what sounds like a treated bottleneck guitar, strangely urgent and interpretive. Oh My God uses the language of social media and advertising to satirise those things: it’s the sound of an overactive and belligerent mind beset by alienating modernity. On the ironically titled Dance Dance, Conrad thuds and thrums in the background while Walshe’s cracked, strained vocalisations crackle beyond the edge of meaning.

The thrilling, crazed high point of the album is Day of the Fair, which takes a melody with the simplicity of a music hall number or a nursery rhyme and turns it, with the help of Conrad’s crashing keys, into an antic postmodern singalong. If Beckett and Brecht had collaborated on a libretto for a Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta, the result might have been something like this. It is both uncompromisingly avant-garde and, at some bizarre level, incredibly catchy. But any turn toward conventional song is reversed with the industrial grumble of closer People Need to Know, where Walshe’s multitracked voice occupies a kind of liminal space between the song and the void, always in danger of slipping over the edge. Convention has never been a preoccupation of either Walshe or Conrad, and In the Merry Month of May is unusual even by the standards of contemporary experimental music. It works as a showcase for two genuine greats improvising with fearless abandon; it works as a swansong for the much-missed Conrad; and it works as a testament to the power of collaboration.

In the Merry Month of May will be released on 24th May 2024 via Blue Chopsticks and Distributed by Drag City.

Bandcamp | Norman Records

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