Chemistry Class


The records were clean white tiles, with hard corners and slick card surfaces—blank save for a smaller offset silver square that brought back dreaded high school chemistry with Dr. Whatshisname: 6 C 12.011 Carbon, 10 Ne 20.1797 Neon. The singles stood starkly against 1994’s dingy wall of Kinko’s-copied garage-rock 45s, but San Francisco–based Table of the Elements (since relocated to Atlanta and Wisconsin) was just as revivalist, unearthing 1972’s compound of stoned Tony Conrad and stoned Faust. This label, too, wanted to bring back the good ol’ electric guitar at the end of the 20th century. But instead of Nuggets, Table of the Elements turned to underdocumented shredders like England’s Keith Rowe and Germany’s Hans Reichel; the label also put out Jim O’Rourke’s premier stateside release. Cramming covert, individual worlds onto the milky-white wax of the archaic jukebox format, the seven-inch series revealed alien odes to Bosnia and actor Michel Piccoli, jabbing my stoner-rock mind with forks and electric screwdrivers. A second, soot-black series featuring Derek Bailey and Thurston Moore followed.

A decade on, in a century anew, it’s not so easy to distinguish black and white. Now Wilco’s country-rock gets french-fried with musique concrète, guitar-pop shares software, and hip-hop is held together with more cutups than funked-ups. Echoing such palimpsests of post-millennial fever, Table of the Elements returned late last year to the vinyl market with the Lanthanides series, 14 single-sided transparent records silk-screened and slipped into clear polyurethane sleeves. Observed separately at a distance, each tablet reveals its distinct artistic intent and accompanying image. Pressed together, though, they turn into a messy cylinder of mashed meanings, wrinkling time in their iconography: A lithographed Icarus plunges through arcane star maps; Harry Smith’s Christmas ornaments and Mike Kelley’s silver balls dangle from kabbalistic trees of life. Simply pulling the discs out involves a prying at fussy layers; the metallic and luminescent paint clings to the plastic sleeves in humid air, and the loosed virgin vinyl throws crackly tantrums on the turntable.

Holdovers from previous series are lady-killers like O’Rourke and Loren Conners, the latter conjuring feedback for Joan of Arc. John Fahey, forever cracking quarter tones from beyond the grave like Monk live on the levee, plucks variations of Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” But the most surprising entries are from the underappreciated women composers. Along with Zeena Parkins and Pauline Oliveros, they now number five of the 14 elements. Rather than return with sterile petri platters, these scientific ladies incubate gooey ooze that bears out further testing than any of their counterparts.

Birmingham’s LaDonna Smith based her improvisations of violin and viola on a Web-found blurb of her assigned element, ytterbium. Going at the malleable and ductile metal like a gypsy in a lab coat, she pressurizes the sawed Bartók lines until they squeal like Stockhausen, her severe processing of the strings proving the piece’s resilience “when subjected to very high stress,” and it sprays vicious sparks throughout.

The two components of Radio/Guitar—since their element, holmium, oxidizes rapidly in moist air—quickly change their valence on “Thrum.” Former no wave toy player for Y Pants, Barbara Ess makes her guitar gurgle between lost transmissions and atmospheric interference. Similarly, Peggy Ahwesh attunes knobs to pick up both shortwave and shore waves, the two ladies playing like buoys between pirate stations and fog-ensconced ships.

Perhaps it’s just synchronicity that Fahey planned a collaboration with banjoist, composer, and computer programmer Laurie Spiegel shortly before his passing. She may yet transform some of his tapes, but in the meantime, we’ve got her Table entry as promethium. Funded by Dr. Carl Sagan’s payola, hers was the leadoff cut on Voyager 2‘s golden record, launched into the cosmos in 1977. Realized on Bell Labs’ computers, Spiegel’s compositional algorithms made audible to earthling ears Johannes Kepler’s Hamonices Mundi, first composed in 1619. Finally available on terra firma, what does it say now about the harmony of the spheres, so crucial to exacting beardos, from Pythagoras to Harry Smith? A shrill merger of frequencies and tones that quickly abandon gravity and liquefy ear crystals, no matter what the heavenly sphere: It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world. And it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a little girl.