John Watermann, Dummyhead (Nightshift, 1990)
John Watermann, Babel #1 (Stille Andacht, 1993)
John Watermann, Testing the Jammer (Raum312, 1996)
[originally posted 8May2000]
For most people, a John Watermann album is an amusing trip through the mind of one of the undisputed masters of cut-and-paste sound. For a sample-based musician, a John Watermann album is far more than that; Watermann’s compositions, and the clips from which he composes them, are some of the more far-reaching in the business. He HAS to have people all over the world garnering this stuff; I can’t believe it all comes from his own little corner of Australia. As such, it’s a sample kit in a box, full of tremendous, funny, beautiful, interesting samples put together seamlessly and released under some of music’s oddest names.
As such, if you’re a musician who uses samples, or an aspiring member of said community, any Watermann album is worth whatever you pay for it—I paid $80 for Illusions of Infinite Bliss four years ago and it’s eighty of the best-spent dollars in my collection, even before I was doing this (and even though I saw a copy of what i assume was the non-limited edition in a catalog a month later for $22…). But for the rest of the world, are they any good?
In all three of these cases, the answer is an unqualified yes. The main question that needs to be asked of any artist who uses the cut-and-paste approach to making music is “does the final product have a coherent line of thought running through it?” All too often the answer is no, but Watermann seems to start with an idea, or a sample, every time, and never gets away from whatever his original intention was, leaving each end product tight, interesting, and worthwhile. We should all be so focused.
The earliest of these recordings is the highly-sought-after Dummyhead, released a decade ago on Nightshift Records. Iris Light Records got a hundred of these in about a month ago, and they sold out in three days. I had no idea Watermann had such a following, though his collaboration with Merzbow is exceptionally highly regarded (and rightly so); but if the kiddies bought Dummyhead expecting more of the ultrafast sampling and mind-crushing noise Watermann was playing with on Brisbane*Tokyo Interlace, they’ll be sorely disappointed.
Those who go into it with a keener and more open mind, however, will be pleasantly transported to that odd, staticky place where Watermann lives. The opening track, “Listening to My Records,” put me in mind of Nurse with Wound’s later and somewhat funkier “Rock and Roll Station,” and one wonders if the two didn’t have the same inspiration (and the name of the guy who did the original “Rock and Roll Station” completely escapes me now, but he’s a musique concrete type from France…). It lacks the beat of the NWW track, but has the same center around a calm, stolid sample, with very minimal electronics worked into it. And it never gets louder. The album progresses like that, staying quite minimal, and the only thing that increases in volume is the samples; the title track, for example, has a rather interesting beginning that ends with a shout cut off just as it’s beginning. Other than that, it’s nice and calm and easy on the ears.
Babel #1 has the feel of a concept album, but Watermann’s work is abstract enough that I can’t quite piece everything together yet. It’s not really rhtyhmic, but the backing sounds are mixed a lot higher on this album than they are on Dummyhead, and there’s more for the casual listener to experience here than there is on that one. Each track has a title that looks like a serial number (or perhaps the location of a brick on the tower of babel?), and they incorporate Watermann’s usual mix of samples, minimal electronics, and every once in a great while a drum beat or two.
Of the three, Testing the Jammer is the one with the most going on in it. One or two of the tracks on here have enough keyboard that they could conceivably be called songs, if just barely (there’s nothing on here with the steady keyboard and beat of, say, “Seeking Perfection in Somersaults” from Illusions of Infinite Bliss, but there’s recognizable keyboard work). There are more samples that sound as if they’ve been treated, as well, rather than just introduced for structure or comedic effect.
From the standpoint of listenability, accessibility, and that sort of thing, Testing the Jammer wins hands down. But I have to say, of these three CDs I like Dummyhead the best. I’m not terribly sure why that is—just gut reaction without real reason to it, probably. But certainly, all three are well worth having in your collection (especially if you get them for the prices I did–before shipping, the grand total on these was $27). And if you use samples in your music, they’re must-haves, every last one of them.
Testing the Jammer *** ½
Babel #1 *** ½
Ed.note 20Sept2013: Dummyhead is now available free on the net.
“Listening to My Records”. Thirteen years after I wrote this review it’s still my favorite Watermann.