Graded on a Curve:
Allen Ravenstine + Albert Dennis,
Terminal Drive

At the intersection of art and rock there is a signpost, and scrawled across it is the name Pere Ubu. From their inception until 1991, Allen Ravenstine’s sui generis synth playing was crucial to the band’s sound, but a new archival LP places his artistry squarely in the foreground; featuring a nearly 16-minute piece with Ravenstine playing EML synthesizers and tapes and Albert Dennis contributing string bass, Terminal Drive is the second release in Smog Veil Records’ Platters du Cuyahoga, Series 2. Accompanied by exhaustively researched notes by music scholar Nick Blakey, it’s out on vinyl Sept 1.

Of the first-generation punk scenes, it feels safe to claim Cleveland as the most artistically ambitious, so much so that some of the participants bristled at the stylistic categorization, and in fact continue to do so. In Pere Ubu’s case, the alternate descriptor Avant-Garage was utilized, and while it apparently wasn’t meant to be a long-term designation, it has lingered as an adequate shorthand regarding the band’s unique style.

Back then, Allen Ravenstine was squarely on the left side of the hyphen, and so it remains today. In the mid-’70s, synths in a pop or rock context were still novel, but it wasn’t simply that he played synths, it was how he played them, a wildly expressive, human approach to technology that helps to solidify Pere Ubu as one of rock’s greatest units.

Ubu’s perseverance as a recording and touring act continues right up to this moment under the leadership of its one constant member David Thomas, and his prominence in the saga perhaps slightly overshadows the contributions of others in their history. Suffice to say that as folks left and returned and left, Ravenstine was a constant on their first eight studio albums.

Furthermore, he was enlisted by Thomas for his group the Pedestrians, who cut The Sound of The Sand and Other Songs of The Pedestrian for Rough Trade in ’81, and for the Wooden Birds, who produced two LPs, Monster Walks the Winter Lake and Blame the Messenger, both also for Rough Trade, in ’86 and ’87 respectively.

Ravenstine’s membership in Pere Ubu directly relates to Terminal Drive’s solitary track, making its surprise emergence (for many years nobody could locate a complete recording of the piece) something firmly other than a scrap of studio time gussied up with verbiage in hopes of snaring the interest of early punk obsessives. Far from it; Nick Blakey’s notes detail how this recording was the catalyst for Thomas asking Ravenstine to join Ubu.

Anyway, many of those passionate for the era (and the band, especially) have already absorbed the nearly seven-minute excerpt of the piece’s final section through DGC’s ’96 Ubu box set Datapanik In the Year Zero, where it was given the title “Home Life” on disc five’s overview of Ubu-related projects and bands that was titled, wouldn’t you know it, Terminal Drive.

The historical interest here is indisputable, and happily the sounds hold up, though it’s important to stress that nothing mind-flaying occurs across the 15:39. Indeed, maybe the most striking sonic aspect is just how subtle it is while being untethered to anything resembling rock. Instead, the environments created are much closer to the experimental electronic music that proliferated in the decade leading up to its recording.

Per the notes, this wasn’t a calculated maneuver. Ravenstine and Dennis weren’t trying to emulate precedent; rather, they were striving to soundtrack their specific ’70s Cleveland reality, and by extension life in The Plaza, “a grand old apartment house on the edge of the inner city” (to quote Thomas’ uncredited notes for 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo, Ubu Live Volume One) where Ravenstine lived with amongst others, future Ubu mates Peter Laughner, Scott Krauss, and Tom Herman. In fact, much of Terminal Drive was recorded at The Plaza (the rest derives from the studio Motion Picture Sound).

If similar to experimental electronic precedent, Terminal Drive also foreshadows developments in the Industrial scene; Blakey mentions Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, and after listening the comparison is right on, if again subtle. More generally, this LP predicts the street-level desire to explore sound unencumbered by song that flourished in the ’80s underground and beyond.

But this album has its own backstory; both Ravenstine and Dennis were part of Hy Maya, a group instigated by Robert Bensick, whose French Pictures in London is an installment in Platters du Cuyahoga, Series 1. Previously unreleased recordings of Hy Maya are set to complete Series 2, and given the descriptions of the outfit’s sound, that’s quite the enticing prospect. Terminal Drive’s achievement is a major archival find however, and as an experience in pure listening, it more than holds up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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