Wizard Prison is a Seattle-based multimedia duo consisting of recording experts Scott Colburn and Ben McAllister. A self-declared ‘audio-wizard’ Scott Colburn is a musical institution in Seattle, with much of his fame owed to the productions of Sun City Girls’ and Climax Golden Twins’ records. He finally gained well deserved recognition after recording what probably was Animal Collective’s best album.
Inventor Ben McAllister is a computer music graduate with a career divided into (and united by) ventures into film composition, sound design and audio engineering.
Although Colburn’s recording style has arguably been focused on capturing live aesthetic, Wizard Prison sounds uniquely refined, if not overdecorative. Whenever it falls into the clichés of electronic rock, it is instantly rescued by the authors’ highly developed sense of space and considerable experience with a wide variety of approaches to both electronic and acoustic (microphones) media.
A mystical fable accompanies this record. There seems to be a Daevid Allenish mischief to it – at least for those who bother to read the story. And it is pleasant to think of this record as a ‘concept album’.
Gogon’s Family Conference
This is studio wizardry at its most unhurried, liquid and glowing. Warm guitar tones, appeasing organ and looped bass all benefit from stylized electronic misplacement. The thematic focus comes from an unexpected source. A Chinese kid declaims affectively verses by Wang Anshi, a poet from Northern Song period. The qiyenjueju phrases celebrate the coming of Spring and the radiance of the sun. Wang was a political figure and a failed revolutionary, and somewhat of a political tone continues as a recording from Communist China’s radio spews some venom against the reforms of Taiwanese parliamentary system. This is followed by snippets in Cantonese. I am not entirely sure if Colburn and McAllister were aware of the semantic content of the excerpt. Western avant-garde musicians have been using tapes with Chinese speech since at least the times of Paul Boisselet’s “Symphonie rouge” (1947), but the proceeding usually reflected little more than the fascination with Mandarin’s quadritonal form. Colburn and McAllister overlay scratchy, processed voices, with the kid repeating the Chinese line. But it remains drowned deep inside the dense, nocturnal atmosphere, not unlike Jah Wobble’s “Bedroom Album”. Colburn once admitted that he despises fronting vocal parts in pop mix.
Despite being more uptempo, this track is sill mudded with those ill-defined Czukay-esque bass and drums loops, punctured here and there by an extra guitar chord. Parading snare drums and woofy organ portend none of the heavy metal guitar blast, which riffs out confidently with its bass underbelly. The structure becomes heavily fractured – electronically rich, but interspersed with anthemic choruses (most likely Asian female voices, but I can’t identify the language, buried in the racket). Tight, dry drumwork distracts from the groove, but the sustained guitar chords usher in a quasi-mantric mood. The distressed female chorus gets re-sampled, re-mixed and re-mingled within the guitar riff and intensifying glitches that wean an entire miasma of bleeps in the style of Yoshihide Otomo’s solo works. As a final accent, acoustic piano takes over, surrounded by cymbals and distant scuttling guitars, all served in a soup of drones. It fades away through the guitar reverb into an echo of nothingness.
The Word of the Imaginary Vision
A 1980s indie rock guitar theme is tamed here by some amateur choral work (sports fans?). This sub-theme crosses the riff line, destabilizing the dominant meter.
The drum-and-hi-hat work is so metric that one could suspect a frayed metaphor of an old-time chug-chug locomotive, with a siren. Clinically insulated Fender Rhodes note is being repeated ad nauseam, but without the grace that the Necks have accustomed us to over the last decade. This repetition imparts an illusion of ascendance but only because the rock trio core breaks it every 8th note. If there is variety in this track, then it is provided by some wailing voices in the distance, and then by the return of China International Radio Station, which re-appears pompous as ever.
Gugon’s Visionary Plan
Cosmic keyboard pulses meet spectral guitar, padded bass and innocuous drumming that turn this to little more than stargazing from a nighttime beach. An unexpected trumpet call intones a wavering “shakuhachi” song. Acoustic guitars turn up in purely supportive, rhythmic role.
Sunn Kill Moon
This longer (21min) track opens with pulsating, blobbing electronics and a throbbing bass line. Wizard Prison shifts scales effortlessly, as the largely discredited 1970s’ sequencer music would do. But the sense of space is limited and so is the range – none of the tempting extremes of high and low register that sequencer-based classics accustomed us to. Only tiny bells accentuate the cleaner side of well-rounded, doughy ambience. The bass throb does not seem to be entirely in synch with the sequenced line of the higher register, but the asynchrony fails to generate any vertiginous sensations that, for example, Deuter’s first LP did. Then the throb is left alone to fend for itself, and is progressively demoted to the nether regions of an electric motor. The interactions between mid-range and lower pulses become quite abstract and never adopt explicitly melodious mantle. Admittedly, 40 years after Morton Subotnick’s seminal bubbly electronics, this passage does appear a mite too derivative. Finally, a dirty guitar fuzz is thrown in and reverberates with a long sustain. In an appendix, a Michael Karoli-styled second guitar washes in repeated frames, pushing away the electronic canvas into the deep background, out of the auditory reach. We are left with towering guitar sound, not unlike on Steven R. Smith’s or Steven R. Lobdell’s solo outings. A slow guitar theme emerges from inside the blizzard of electronic effects. It turns evidently illustrative, with chromatic effects, alien bubbles, mysterious ostinatos, and sharp fuzz incisions. A sense of foreboding prevails throughout. Bass outcrops will suffer injections of intrusive guitar until the end.
WIZARD PRISON: “The Early Years 1972-2005” (1974-2002)
WIZARD PRISON: “II” (2005)
The “Early Years” document Ben McAllister’s experiments and film soundtracks.