Toronto's Expanding Head Bands

Kevin Hainey, Eye Weekly, Toronto, Aug. 11, 2005.


Indie-yuppies beware -- a new generation of local noise-makers is burrowing further underground


What with indie-rock and its culture having grown into a global urban mainstream of sorts, it feels appropriate that a fierce new underground is growing along with it, one that unabashedly blasts out free-form torrents of harsh noise, primal freak-rock and droning transcendence all over the open minds of its small-but-devoted audience.

This tough-to-categorize wellspring of freethinking sound fusion (often tagged with the awkward New Weird America signifier) worships its own current American heroes -- Charalambides, Black Dice, Double Leopards, Hair Police and Wolf Eyes, for starters. One look at such massive mail-order distribution websites as Fusetron (, Eclipse (, Forced Exposure ( or Midheaven ( quickly reveals the countless fringe labels and releases that are out there: from elaborate limited-edition vinyl pressings to anarchically packaged CD-Rs, mysterious cassettes, even music lathe-cut into laserdiscs or saw blades.

These dense discographies make it apparent just how many far-out new sound-units are emerging and further developing to quench the thirsty inner ears of freaked-out music addicts from here to Osaka.

Of course, Toronto has seen no shortage of experimental innovators in its day -- avant-improv legends CCMC (featuring renowned artists Michael Snow, Paul Dutton and John Oswald) have been consistently scrambling brainwaves since the 1970s, while surrealist noise collagist William A. Davison (a.k.a. Songs of the New Erotics), harsh noise warrior KNURL and Vancouver-cum-Toronto musique concrete acoustic-guitar shredder Brian Ruryk have certainly made their respective marks on the underground over the course of their 10 to 20 years of productivity.

But a new breed of musicians -- set on exploring and pushing the outer realms of such determinedly fringe sounds as noise, free-jazz, psych-rock and ancient folk until they come together into some beautifully blurred and brutally honest new musical freedom -- have been sprouting out in clusters all over the city (see sidebar).

One project that best exemplifies the aesthetics and ideals of this growing underground is Gastric Female Reflex, who explore methods of electro-acoustic sound manipulation with a freewheeling and chaotic unpredictability. Having encountered some reactionary flack about their name, this dynamic duo has forged on to earn the encouraging accolades of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Byron Coley (in their column for Arthur, Bull Tongue), count an occasional third member in William A. Davison and have released no fewer than 14 hand-packaged efforts in various formats on their own Bennifer Editions imprint. They've also rushed to the aid of budding young noise artists by tirelessly arranging shows, most of them at Mike Hansen's New Works Studio (319 Spadina Ave.), and actively bringing some of the world's most vital new experimentalists to town.

As co-founder Jacob Horwood relates, "The funny thing about noise is that, as nice as it would be to have a community of participating artists and 50 or so people that would come to shows on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, the ease of international internet distribution and communication makes it easy to do what we do, and exist out of our home, rather than in a scene, which other kinds of music thrive from. But that doesn't say for a second that I wouldn't love to have 10, 20, 30 experimental bands wanting to do shows."

"There are that many bands," adds second founder Andrew Zuckerman, "there's just a weird space between everyone in Toronto."

To a degree, Zuckerman is right: our city certainly has no shortage of live avant-activity, but each pocket seems so far removed (and aesthetically different) from the other. For instance, there's the Rat-drifting label and community, which specializes in free-jazz oddities and makes Tranzac (292 Brunswick Ave.) its home; Ambient Ping Tuesdays at Hacienda (794 Bathurst) for the ambient and drone set; Dougal Bichan's monthly experimental jazz improv night Bitchin' at Oasis (294 College); the more classical-geared events at the Music Gallery (197 John); and the more random and rocking throw-downs at The Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen W.), The Bagel (285 College) and Neutral (349A College).

But as Zuckerman and Horwood contend, fringe acts can be brought together by their differences. Online outlets like and the incomparable SoundList mail-out ( are two ways to keep tabs on what's happening in the city's experimental fringes.

Another strong force of unification for underground artists is the record label. HP Cycle, founded in 2000, is one such label that retains a strict underground sensibility and has gained a worldwide reputation as possibly our city's finest experimental imprint. Likewise, Bennifer Editions have begun to release the work of others, including Brian Ruryk's latest offering, Smeared Gravity and Guitars Lippin' Off. (Incidentally, Ruryk's seminal album, Piece of Shit Guitar, was just reissued by Yeay, and comes highly recommended by Wolf Eyes, among others.)

And if you can't find a label that will release your psych experiments or noise bursts, homemade CD-Rs and cassettes are a cheap, easy and highly admired way to go. "I like the idea of making a big batch [of hand-assembled releases]," says Horwood, "and when they sell out they're gone and we move on. It's treated less as a product that way, more of a straight-up edition... art."


Along with Gastric Female Reflex, here are some other purveyors of Toronto's new noise:

Flynns: This mysterious and secretly prolific trio creates meticulous and enthralling guitar-drone that would rather free your mind and spirit than bog it down with the heavy stuff.

Ghostlight: A freewheeling, Krautrock-inspired, eight-piece psych-rock warhorse of a band that brings the jams and knows how to steer them. Includes members of local psych-pop faves Mean Red Spiders.

Dumbodian: Spacey synth-based drone emulsions, left-field audio trickery and a bit of everything else under the sun from this duo.

Parkade: A law-breaking, open-concept project that sets up in urban stairwells and parking garages all over Toronto to bang and clatter awake all sorts of natural reverb.

Awesome: This troupe put style a bit before substance to dress up in cloaks, use fog-lights as masks and emit fairly standard synth drones and drum-circle rhythms.

Six Heads: An improvising sound collage group -- featuring William Davison and long-running tapes experimenter James Bailey -- that is heavily inspired by surrealist theories.

Cathryn Crockett: Creates engrossing compositions by mic-ing locations and throwing prepared percussion such as sticks and cans of beans into them.

Ryan Driver: A diverse Rat-drifting regular, Driver has a number of projects that utilize his unique musical sensibilities, a combination of lo-fi technology and electro-acoustic exploration.


Ghostlight, Dumbodian and Nifty. Thu, Aug 11, 10pm. Nomiya (812 Dundas W.). $5.

Pengo, Gastric Female Reflex and Offensive Orange. Sat, Aug 13, The Art Bar/Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen W). $7.

Dead Machines, Awesome and Gastric Female Reflex. Wed, Aug 17. The Bagel (285 College). $7.

Carlos Giffoni, Christina Carter (of Charalambides), Marcia Bassett (of Double Leopards) and Fursaxa. Aug 21, The Art Bar/Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen W). $10.



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