Graded on a Curve:
The Nightcrawlers,
The Biophonic Boombox Recordings

Comprised of Peter Gulch, Tom Gulch, and Dave Lunt, Philadelphia’s electronic specialists The Nightcrawlers existed throughout the ’80s and released three albums. However, the new retrospective collection The Biophonic Boombox Recordings taps into the group’s considerable cassette catalog, which grew to over 35 entries. Deeply impacted by German kosmische and emboldened by their own city’s street-level support for edgy, avant-garde art, the results offer a celestial trip of unusual potency; the set is out now on 2LP, 2CD, and digital through Anthology Recordings.

In his notes for this set, D. Strauss (who also curated and produced the album) offers up substantial info and insights into the lifespan of this unsung outfit, in particular highlighting the impact of avant-garde classical (Lunt professing love for Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage), Brian Eno and the Krautrock-affiliated Berliner Schule (which included Cluster, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream), but one observation from Peter Gulch stuck out; that if the electronic material he and his future bandmates (and local associates) loved wasn’t forthcoming, they’d just make their own.

For musicians who came of age during the 1970s, this is a familiar scenario. Having been given a taste of life-sustaining but finite stuff, there was a need to fill the void, and the only remedy was to do it themselves, a circumstance interweaving quite nicely with how avant-garde art thrived in a city with a crumbling economy; it was a place Strauss describes as “weird, dangerous and beautiful.”

This background regularly gets attached to the punk of late ’70s-early ’80s New York City, but The Nightcrawlers lack a sense of surliness and desperation; instead, they are depicted as three well-adjusted guys, with Peter working as a chemist and his brother an Air Force vet who paid the bills as a postman. Although the younger Lunt was keen to tour, due to the settled lifestyles of his counterparts (along with the formidable task of hauling a massive amount of electronic equipment), that never happened.

They did frequently play in Philly art spaces, galleries, and churches, building up a local following as a result, but largely flew under the radar elsewhere. Not that they were unknowns; as mentioned up top, three albums were cut (’84’s Nightcrawlers, ’85’s Spacewalk, and ’87’s Shadows of Light, compiled on the out-of-print and currently pricey 2CD Traveling Backwards), and that sorta thing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but ultimately, they were bigger beneficiaries of the budding cassette culture of the ’80s, with their music heard internationally, garnering a strong and fittingly reciprocal response from Germany.

Those cassettes were recorded with a JVC Biphonic Sound System RC-828JW, or as established in the title of this retrospective, a boombox. Capturing kosmische-inspired sounds with an internal condenser mic certainly brings a unique aura to a style that’s noted for glistening and floating, but matters move far beyond the (lack of) studio set-up; the preponderance of howling wind in opener “Phase I: Discovery and Approach” aside, The Nightcrawlers are never truly ambient, and they surely, by their own admission, aren’t New Age.

Spacy is a proper descriptor, but they are just as often hypnotic, an attribute that points to the influence of Reich and Glass, and overall, their music, which can spread out to nearly 25 minutes, is a tad edgier and weightier than is the norm in the celestial zone. In a deft turn of phrase, Anthology calls it “hard-knuckled kosmische.”

Perhaps a bit more important than the boombox and the budget cassettes used to document these sounds was the band’s dislike for the standard studio process, and more specifically Peter’s aversion to doing repeated takes. That sort of repetition can lead to the polish that’s lacking on Biophonic Boombox, and it can also instill a staid environment, which is also missing here, as these performances, essentially rehearsal tapes, radiate palpable love in creation.

That’s not to say that everything’s perfect. “Transsonic” has a little too much drumming for my taste, and the solo piano of “Baba Yaga’s Flight,” while perfectly fine when heard in isolation, is a little disruptive to the superb flow that’s worked up through sequential listening. But overall, this abundant (over two and a half hours) and welcome history lesson never wears thin.

To the contrary, two of The Biophonic Boombox Recordings’ best tracks, the somewhat Terry Riley-ish “Modern Pre-Flight” and the early avant-electronic “Reprieve” (which brings Eduard Artemyev to mind) arrive late (both are bonuses on the vinyl’s download), and they help culminate a resounding success.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text