Named after a 1983 Philip Taaffe collage (see: the featured image that was used with “gracious permission” by the artist for the cover of this release), Martyr Group is a new project formed by OSR Tapes helmsmen Zach Phillips (Triple Blanche, CE Schneider Topical, Jib Kidder, and more). It also features some spectacular performances on guitar and bass by a number of Phillips’ gifted friends: Stephe Cooper, Tom Csatari, Sam Lisabeth, and Quentin Moore. Former Guerilla Toss bassist and all-around musical force Simon Hanes (Tredici Bacci, Luxardo) provides his four-string prowess and some “tasteful” guitar as well (according to the liner notes). With Phillips’s vocals and Wurlitzer piano animating the melodies throughout, these live recording sessions leave a light, energetic, yet intimate impression of the intricate and focused songwriting skills he most always brings to the table. After hearing these 24 tracks of stripped-down, subtle, and infectiously strange music, including this CD on my list of favorite releases from 2014 was a no-brainer.
Martyr Group’s first release and OSR’s 29th, these songs were recorded straight to an open-reel Tascam 388 over the course of four sessions between October and November of 2014 at Phillips’s Manual FX studios in Brooklyn, NY. Those sessions gave rise to a collection of songs in which guitars, bass, piano, and voice sketch and smudge musical lines with little else to get in the way. Warm and largely unadorned production creates a welcoming space in which the instruments may perform and dialogue. Tape-speed adjustments and steep EQ curves lend a nuanced change of palette from one song to the next. The temptation to obfuscate the contours and grooves of each song is lessened by the decision to record live: Phillips’s “performative recording” is still intact but circumscribed by a concurrent commitment to a live recording style. With edits and overdubs off the table, the songs get a chance to speak wholly for themselves.
Starting with a spiraling, soft cacophony, “Should Be Used To Free” is a quick opener that swiftly establishes an agile interplay of instruments. Next is “Better As Billy,” a straight-ahead rocker with a mid-tempo engine that chugs along with rockabilly as its general template. After that is “One Less Time,” one of my favorite tracks from this release. A sea of circling guitar lines float atop a bed of bass and piano harmonies that are simply mesmerizing, with Phillips’s lyrics offering a calm meditation on the song’s title. The increased tape speed helps lend an extra layer of smoothness to the surface of this beautiful piece.
Over the course of this CD, the melodies flow uninterrupted in an almost endless stream of shapes and phrases. Here are just a few standout moments from that river of musical goodness: There’s “Martyr Group,” which bounces along to its spastic conclusion with background chipmunk vocals lending the lyrical refrain of “I’m nobody, I’m nobody / You’re nobody, you’re nobody” an interesting structural counterpart. “Is There a Word for Love” also sticks out as a tender slow-burner with restrained guitars and a cyclical harmonic pattern. “Suddenly Act” features some hotter signals, with that extra bit of distortion cushioning the dissonant chunks of bass and piano beneath sharp stabs of guitar to create a funky, compressed mosaic. “Don’t Sell Your Morsel Thin” sees Christina Schneider providing vocal harmonies on a swaying track that wouldn’t be out of place on her and Phillips’s debut CE Schneider Topical cassette, “Look Who Showed Up Out Here.” “When You’ve Been Had,” for which Phillips has made a really well-executed and thought-provoking music video (included after the jump), is just about as snarling as Martyr Group gets. The payoff is extraordinary. With a plodding, charming bass line and scratchy guitars, this tune tells an abstracted tale of the Internet and its illusory promises of equality and accessibility. It also shows Phillips’s ability to take an initially unobtrusive musical nugget and transform it into a sharp, cutting musical moment.
With OSR having moved offline, make sure you get in touch with Phillips via mail or phone to get your hands on this CD, as well as any other OSR releases you may want. Directions for doing commerce with OSR in their post-Internet incarnation are available here as part of the digital remains of its online tenure. They just dropped a batch of new records, tapes, and CDs on Valentine’s Day, so there’s plenty of new and old music to check out that is well worth your time. No bandcamp links or anything like that are available for Martyr Group, so you’ll have to settle for the amazing “When You’ve Been Had” video embedded below until you get your snail-mail plans straightened out.