Friday, May 1, 2009

Wooden Shjips

This is a band that I’ve really been getting into in the last couple of months.

San Francisco based Wooden Shjips (J is silent) navigate the waters between psychedelia, kruat rock and noise. The songs, which are mostly instrumental, are built on simple repetitive rhythms. To these modest foundations layer upon layer of guitar is added, resulting in fortified walls of harmonic distortion. So dense is this seething caldron of frequency that at times it all seems to smear together into white noise.

The vocals, which are generally very minimal and heavily processed, are sung by band leader Erik “Ripley” Johnson. The lyrics are nearly unintelligible and cryptic when they can be deciphered at all. His delivery and tone vaguely recall Jim Morrison. But Morrison as he might have sounded doing a dub record with King Tubby. Dripping with reverb and delay, they materialize and fade into noise.

The first album I obtained was the self titled Wooden Shjips. This record was made the old way- that is entirely analogue, from ½ inch tape to limited vinyl pressing. Opener We Ask You to Ride begins innocuously enough with looped drums, bass and Theremin-like synthesizer. Fairly uneventful until about a minute and forty seconds in at which point piercing distorted guitar slices through the methodical groove. This savage eruption foreshadows the onslaught ahead. All five of the tracks are sweet, but it’s on the bonus disc, comprised of the bands earlier 12”s, that things really heat up. Dance California starts with a formidable distorted Sabbath-esque riff. The intensity is then turned up to eleven with epileptic tambourines and torrential, blistering squalls of guitars. Death’s not Your Friend adds plinky synths and sleigh bells to the mix of ragged crunchy guitars. Ripley's vox drowning in time-based effects, seem to float disembodied over a great distance. Shrieking at the Moon starts, with a clean bass line then builds with twisted guitar distortion and escalates into controlled chaos almost dissonance at about three and a half minutes in.

The result is initially jarring but ultimately anesthetizing, kinda how I imagine the experience of being choked out in a sleeper hold would be.

The recently released Dos (Holy Mountain) begins with a snatch of feedback and a chunky distorted guitar riff. And though opener Motor Bike and Aquarian Time have a rough garage-y feel, over all the record seems more constrained. Having dampened down the visceral rawness of texture in favor of a more polished groove, this outing is heavier on the kraut influence- especially the organ-driven, funk of Fallin’. At other places things veer into surf territory (For So Long) with favorable results. I’m guessing this aesthetic change is due to the guys bringing in another producer and not because they’ve somehow lost the plot as some others have claimed.

As an interesting aside, it seems this band was started as an experiment with no intention of going anywhere. The project was conceived of by Ripley, as basically an outlet for improvisational jam sessions with friends. The thinking was apparently that gathering a bunch of guys with no formal musical training would bring a different perspective to the music. Here’s to the guys for committing this project to tape!

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