Volume 93, Issue 16

Friday, September 24, 1999


Weekend Pass

Veda Hille nibbles on humble pie

Smashers work for a fun planet

Type-O gives metal life

Adaptation not pride of Stratford

Chicago maps out its own soundscape

The good, the bad and the just there



Chicago maps out its own soundscape

By Mark Pytlik
Gazette Staff

New York equaled the urban playground for punk rock acts in the '70s. Detroit witnessed the evolution of house music in the '80s. Seattle provided the birthplace of grunge in the '90s.

While ultimately it won't have nearly the same impact as any of these musical hot spots, Chicago is slowly making a name for itself on the musical map by spawning a small collective of avant-garde and experimental rock/jazz bands. Two of these bands, The Eternals and Isotope 217, coming to London this weekend, were more than happy to share their goals and views on the emergence of this distinct Chicago sound.

Damon Locks is over-qualified when it comes to commenting on Chicago's unique blend of jazz, rock and electronic music. In addition to being the lead singer for The Eternals, a band obsessed with rhythmic patterns and musical exploration, Locks is also a crucial part of Thrill Jockey, which most consider to be Chicago's premier avant-garde label.

According to Locks, the distinct musical scenes within the city are increasingly becoming intertwined as the result of Thrill Jockey's work. "I've been kind of tangential with the jazz scene, but at the same time it's becoming a lot more close knit," he says. "The influx of players has brought it even closer. Now when I go to jazz shows, half of the people in the audience are musicians I've talked to before. It's all getting a little bit more integrated."

Is this a special time to be a musician in Chicago? "Yeah, I'd have to say [so]," he agrees. "Things come in waves and right now we're catching a good one. It's going really well. I'm glad to be here at this point."

One major contributor to this success is a man named John Herndon, whose contributions to a band called Tortoise helped put Chicago on the map. Herndon, along with two other members of Tortoise, are taking a break from that band to concentrate on Isotope 217, a jazzier, soundscape-oriented ensemble. Their second album, Utonian Automatic, was recorded by friend Bundy Brown and Chicago magnate John McEntire.

Herndon is quick to downplay the incestuous nature of the scene. "We just enjoy the way they record and that's why we asked them to help us out," he states. "I think it's more just that these are the people we know."

Ask Herndon a purely musical question and he's a little bit more accommodating. In addition to the standard guitar/bass/drums, the band is planning to augment the forthcoming tour with a variety of electronic drums and percussion, a coronet, a pianet, a theremin, some synths and possibly even a MiniDisc player, which Herndon says will provide ambient sound textures. From this, it would seem audiences are guaranteed a dense sounding show. "At times," Herndon concedes. "But at times it'll be pretty sparse too."

He means "sparse" in the Chicago sense, obviously.

Isotope 217 and The Eternals play with Blurtonia at Call the Office tonight.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999