Automatic Music:
North Carolina's Cosmic Collective

by Jerry Kranitz
Photographs courtesy of Ed Shepherd

From Aural Innovations #24 (July 2003)

Aural Innovations may be The Global Source For Space Rock Exploration, but long-time readers know that in reality we represent just about anything that is out there. In addition to space rock and psychedelic music a large part of what we like to cover is experimental, free-improv, and general avant-garde music. Few bands exemplify the range of what Aural Innovations is about then Automatic Music, a North Carolina based collective who play some of the most spaced out, mindfucked jams that the world has heard since the early days of Amon Düül II, Guru Guru and Ash Ra Tempel. But Automatic Music are about so much more. All music is freely improvised, and given the eclectic interests of its fluid membership... well... anything is possible. And from one album track to the next the listener can be jockeyed between old style Krautrock, screaming garage rock, Residents and avant-prog styled experimentations, and abstract free-improvisation.

Automatic Music began life in 1999 when Ed Shepherd (aka East October) and Fred Hall (aka Gentlemaniac) decided to form the Szum label and attempt to make a group out of the informal improvisational get togethers that they and others had been involved with for years. The group was called Automatic Music based on the concept of "automatic writing", where the subconscious, or the spirit, or the muse takes over and the player is part creator and part conduit for the "expressions from the ether". But as a listener I think the following quote from the Carnival Of Light CD liner notes best describes the band: Automatic Music is a collective of musicians with diverse interests and tastes in composition, structure and form who have agreed to disagree on what music is.

The first Automatic Music release was titled Dawn, with only Shepherd and Hall receiving copies, its principle purpose being for the members to hear whether or not their concept had taken it's intended form. Though Dawn was never publicly released, some tracks were included on the first two official Automatic Music CD's: And In Arcadia I Am... and This Is Automatic Music, both of which included varying personnel as well as recordings made by just Shepherd and Hall. I recall being struck by the diversity across these recordings (see AI #14) and describing the results as everything from Ash Ra Tempel/Guru Guru/Can influenced Krautrock jams, to dirty bluesy rockers, to chaotic avant garde experimentations.

The next album, ...In A Dollhouse (see AI #14), was the first to include the 5 principle members of Automatic Music, but it wasn't until Carnival Of Light (see AI #16) that any information was revealed about the band, which at this time included Shepherd, Hall, Jeff Mills (aka Tragic Bunny), Bret Hart and Scotty Irving (aka Clang Quartet). (Hart is a prolific improvisational musician and inventor of instruments who has been featured extensively in the pages of AI and on AI Radio, and you can read a review of Scotty Irving's new Clang Quartet CD this issue.) Though just as spacey as anything else they've done, ...In A Dollhouse struck me as being one of Automatic Music's more purely experimental releases, whereas Carnival Of Light is a melting pot of styles with lots of cosmic fun. I love reviewing Automatic Music CD's because they are such a challenge to describe, and with Carnival Of Light I used descriptions like experimental psychedelia and threw out analogies like the Cosmic Jokers, Sun Ra, and Black Sabbath. Speaking to the wide range of influences that informs their music, Shepherd notes that he is a big Beatles fan, as well as a lover of Mona Lisa/Nature Boy styled Nat King Cole.

Released in conjunction with Carnival Of Light was Let Us Go Into The Open Country, a compilation of selections from the first four Automatic Music CD's plus solo contributions from each group member. (Note: There are several additional limited release recordings not mentioned here - "limited" often meaning only the band members got a copy - and I will leave it to the reader to check out the full discography at the web site.)

The next two Automatic Music releases: Spiffy and The Return Of King Harvest featured an expanded lineup of musicians, including Kevin Killinger, Guerny Brown and Terry Lonigren, though several others were, and typically are, involved as availability and circumstances allow. Spiffy really took me by surprise, at the time being the strongest and most coherent Automatic Music release to date. And The Return Of King Harvest was unique in that it featured more or less the same lineup that appeared on Spiffy. But Spiffy remains a gem in the Automatic Music catalog, featuring some of the bands best space/krautrock/psych jams, while still exploring other adventurous realms that bring to mind Captain Beefheart, Vas Deferens Organization, King Crimson, and more.

Recorded at Bret Hart's house in mid-2002, Music From Eden, NC is an interesting set, being a mini-disc of unplugged Automatic Music (the Volkswagon fender on the cover was used as percussion on several cuts). But the bands latest, and surely most ambitious release to date, is the 3-CD Szumagumma set, a concept album in terms of CD organization that draws from the spirit (and cover art) of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. Disc 1 is the latest Automatic Music album and consists of cosmic voyages that take the music on Spiffy to even great heights. Disc 2 consists of tracks from the various other projects that the band members have been involved in, and disc 3 features the band members' various solo projects, with both discs often including cross collaborations between the members (see full review in AI #23).

In addition to being a great set of music, Szumagumma is an important release in that it highlights the collective nature of Automatic Music. We see that each member is involved in a variety of personal projects and each collaborates with the others, often in multiple configurations. Fred Hall points out that he is currently involved in 3 different projects involving different members of the band. Bret Hart's Duets series has included Hall and Scotty Irving. And live shows can include just about anybody. When asked to describe a typical Automatic Music performance Fred Hall responds, "A typical gig?". One recent performance at a community center in Eden, NC included strobes and slide projectors to add a multi-media element to the show. And instruments can range from ordinary guitars, drums and keyboards, to homemade or prepared instruments.

Listening to the Automatic Music catalog it's clear that this viewpoint toward improvisation and the collective, and drawing upon whatever influence or interest a member or participant may wish to indulge has resulted in some always interesting, usually challenging, and often exciting music. As Fred Hall says, "I guess when all is said and done we, the collective, revel in operating under the true concept of improv... cognitive and incognitive performance based on the moment".

For more information you can visit the Szum Music web site at:
Contact via snail mail c/o Szum Music; 4970 Randleman Rd; Greensboro, NC 27406.
CLICK HERE to listen to an Automatic Music special on Aural Innovations Radio.

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