I follow more blogs than a reasonable person should, and spend far too much time struggling to keep up with all their posts, often to the detriment of writing for my own blog. And like mine, a good many of them are about or related to music, which then entails devoting even more time listening to one or more songs those bloggers have shared, sometimes an entire album! So it’s nice when that time I’ve invested pays dividends in the form of great music discoveries. Such was the case when I heard the new album Simmons and Schuster on Abominations, a blog I follow that’s written by the hyper-talented and creative Marc Schuster. A collaboration between Schuster and fellow teacher/musician Timothy Simmons, the album is an unusual, fascinating and thoroughly unique work that I like so much, I have to share it with my readers.
A true renaissance man, Marc Schuster not only teaches English at Montgomery County Community College in southeastern Pennsylvania, he’s also written several books, scripts for two short films, and numerous book reviews, as well as writes songs and records music both as a solo artist and with music projects Plush Gordon, The Ministry of Plausible Rumours and experimental electronic music project Android Invasion. Last April, I featured his single “Before the Boys” on one of my Fresh New Tracks posts. I don’t know very much about Timothy Simmons, other than that he teaches music at Delaware Valley Friends School in Paoli, Pennsylvania, and is a terrific and imaginative musician as well.
The album features seven wonderfully-titled instrumental moodscapes that run the gamut from dark and menacing to light and soothing, with a cinematic quality that makes it feel, in their words, “like the soundtrack to a film that has yet to be made.” Los Angeles-based noir rock band Edgar Allen Poets compared it to Dante’s Divine Comedy, calling it “A journey between hell, purgatory, and then heaven”, a description I cannot argue with. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect about the album is that it was almost entirely improvisational, in that none of the seven tracks were composed, written or planned out in advance. Schuster explained “Usually, Tim would just start playing, and then I’d either play along or overdub my parts. ‘Start With Drums’, for example, literally started with Tim playing drums, and then I added some guitar and bass parts.”
Each of them played various instruments, with Simmons mainly playing drums, upright electric bass and piano, whereas Schuster played mostly electric guitar and bass, as well as snare drum on “Infernal Combustion Engine” and cymbals on “Murky Depths”. Most of the instruments are analog, and the drums were all recorded live and, in some cases, looped or rearranged in the editing process. They recorded the majority of the album in Schuster’s basement studio on August 18 and 28, 2021, though they did a fair amount of editing and overdubbing afterward. The exception is the album’s closing track, “Ralph Waldo Steps In,” which Simmons recorded in his living room earlier in the year, and Schuster later adding a string arrangement.
With Simmons and Schuster, the guys attempt to “depict the history of creation in the space of about forty-five minutes“. The darkly beautiful opening track “Start with Drums” represents the big bang, “flinging bits and pieces of music everywhere“. Actually, the track sounds somewhat more orderly than that to my ears, with Simmons’ repetitive drumbeats providing a kind of forward momentum in the creation of the universe, though Schuster’s throbbing bass and otherworldly blend of chiming and jangly guitars suggest the more random elements.
Next up is “Infernal Combustion Engine”, an eerie, almost dystopian sounding track intended to depict “a hot mess of a planet gradually taking shape“. The spooky music and sounds are created from mostly harsh industrial synths and sharp percussion, giving the track a strong sci-fi vibe. The first time I heard it, I immediately thought it would perfect as the basis for the soundtrack of the next installment of the Alien franchise, should there ever be one. Moving right along, “Murky Depths” “imagines the first signs of life appearing deep beneath the primordial sea“. It’s the longest track on the album, and has a cinematic, almost contemporary classical feel, with dramatic sweeping string synths, accompanied by subtle bass, strongly resonant chiming guitar notes and delicate cymbals.
“Tadpoles,” so named when Schuster noticed that the graphic representation of the sounds Simmons was making on his bass looked like tadpoles in the recording software they were using, is a languid track musically describing the continuing evolution of life. The music consists primarily of Simmons’ gentle bassline, overlain by Schuster’s twangy guitar notes that give the track a laid-back feel. For this track, Schuster played a Squier VI, which has six strings and is kind of a hybrid between a bass and a guitar. There are also rather strange shrill sounds that to my ears sound like screeching tires or brakes off in the distance. I have no idea of their significance, other than to perhaps add a bit of edginess and texture to the track.
One of the more unusual tracks on the album is “Mucking It Up”, meant to represent “the first land animals crawling onto muddy shores.” There’s a gnarly glop-like sound throughout the track that I thought sounded like it might be from a didgeridoo (an Australian aboriginal wind instrument). When I asked Schuster about it, he said “That didgeridoo sound is actually Tim’s upright electric bass. I ran it through a series of effects in Reason, the program I use to record music. The main effect is called the Synchronus Timed Effect Modulator. That’s what gives it what I think of as the “mucky” sound, hence the song’s title. I thought it sounded like stepping in mud.”
The futuristic “The End Was a Mess (So We Cut It)” sonically represents humankind’s industrialization of the world, millions of years after its creation. Appropriately, the guys use a mix of spacy and ominous industrial synths, wobbly guitar notes and quirky sound effects to create a somewhat unsettling soundscape that very effectively conveys – to my ears at least – the negative aspects of industrialization on both the planet and it’s inhabitants. Thankfully, things close on a tranquil note with “Ralph Waldo Steps In”, an enchanting piano piece with beautiful strings. It’s a fitting and optimistic end to a marvelous work by these two imaginative and creative guys. I hope at least some of my readers will enjoy it as much as I do.