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Latest excursion/exploration into the genius of the late great Angus Maclise that will throw you back into that insomnia haze you truly enjoyed, if you’re old enough. Stripped back focus on the artist and his compositions, some of which are the last things he ever recorded. In the 70s, Angus’s interest in tape music, noise, and the extreme gradualisms of music had reached its apex, and these pieces were born. Nowhere else will you hear Angus shredding apart the circuits of an arp synthesizer, or the powerful undertow of his shimmering organ waves. Far out but required listening for fans of Terry Riley and La Monte Young's Fluxus flourishes.
though he’s perhaps best known as the mythical first drummer of the Velvet Underground (despite never appearing on a single surviving recording with the band), Angus MacLise’s career after quitting the Velvets is far more interesting than his connection to that band. To this day, MacLise remains something of a shadowy figure. The story, as far as most people are concerned, is that the drummer quit the Velvets before their first gig because he was opposed to making money for his music; he then set off on a journey to Tibet, among other places, before dying in 1974. But in between lies a wealth of fantastic music, never heard during MacLise’s lifetime, and only compiled and released after his death by various friends and fans. Astral Collapse is the latest of Quakebasket’s archival MacLise albums, compiled from the many reels of tape left behind in the drummer’s wake.
The album opens unassumingly, with MacLise invoking Tibetan Buddhism as a primary inspiration for the music and poetry contained on these tapes. After this brief introduction, he reads the poem “Smothered Under Astral Collapse,” backed by grinding industrial electronics and drones, sounding both alien and earthly at once. MacLise’s recitation is declarative but un-pretentious, infusing emotion into his work without coming across as self-conscious; a pretty rare feat among the underground illuminati with whom the drummer frequently worked.
Indeed, throughout this album, MacLise’s art never seems as tied up in notions of authenticity or theory as that of his contemporaries. He is simply making music for his own pleasure and intellectual advancement, never intending for it to be heard outside of his close-knit circle of friends and family (many of whom also appear on these tapes). The lulling repetition of the 17-minute synthesizer drone “6th Face of the Angel” follows MacLise’s reading, and from there the album departs into a grab-bag exploration of odds and ends.
Perhaps by necessity, these pieces have the feel of random artifacts found and recovered; MacLise never made an album, per se, so none of these tapes flow together particularly well, and the CD works best as an historical document of MacLise’s many musical sides. “Beelzebub,” with its hand drumming backed by howling wind and barely-heard chants, provides a hint of what the Velvets might have sounded like with MacLise behind the skins, and his deft touch on the drums is obvious even on this distant-sounding recording. The tentative electronics, piano-like sounds, and tape noise of “Cloud Watching” is a bit drifting and tedious, but the album closes beautifully with the two-part piece “Dracula.”
The first piece is a harsh, squalling sea of electronics that sounds surprisingly similar to some of the modern-day experiments of such innovators as Coil and the Mego crew. MacLise’s shifting hand drum patterns provide an unsteady support for the high frequency squirts and pitch-shifted squeals, keeping the focus always on the pushed-to-the-edge electronics. The second half of “Dracula” goes the quieter route, mixing watery lo-fi drones with field recordings of manipulated bird calls, Buddhist chants, dinner conversation, rain, and more of MacLise’s image-packed poetry. It’s a hypnotic and beautiful track that also provides a much-appreciated glimpse into what the drummer’s life might have been like during his visit to Tibet. As such, it’s a perfect ending to the album, closing out this latest unearthed chapter of MacLise’s life on a note of spirituality and musical purity, much as he himself probably would have liked.