Allen Ravenstine's Waiting for the Bomb


Ominous ticking clock of a fifties doomsday countdown in the twilight zone. Lying in the dark with eyes closed remembering the look of an old George Pal take-me-to-the moon—was I ever that young? And ravishing swirls and swoops of sound recall the atmosphere of Altair-4—a whole planet whose vast, remote and vanished history waits to teach me a lesson we urgently need to learn. A nostalgic theme recalls the domesticity within which my first experience of these wonders was embedded, then back to the ticking clock, the title track. 


Later, on “Spirits”, the invisible destroyer no longers merely stalks, it performs a ceremonial dance. Wild and eerie, the danger is tempered by deliberation, first step on a long slow climb toward self-awareness and understanding. This was the second track I listened to when I stumbled over the album on bandcamp and stabbed a click at it.


The first was “Day Shift”, and I started to smile, not because it reminded me for a moment of Mark of the Mole-period Residents (earnest, but so in a world of its own it’s also funny) but because it’s a real stomper, full of farts & swizzles.


But I wonder as I smile am I being honest with myself? In recent weeks I’ve let my ears rest lightly on a wide range of music. Sometimes put a finger in the place, so I can turn back and give it time when there’s time to give it time. Other times I’m so self-concerned I think no, that’s okay, but I’d rather be listening to my own stuff because, worthy as it is, this doesn’t take me there, and I step just as lightly away. But Allen Ravenstine’s new album hauls into view and I dive right in, smiling and splashing around happily. Only, when I come up for air I ask myself am I being honest with myself am I really enjoying this as much as I think or am I just cutting it more slack than I’d cut for somebody else because it’s Allen Ravenstine’s new album? And then another swirling fritz comes round with a big perspective and I know I’m smiling because it takes me home.


We can’t go home, life takes us away, we’re always leaving, and I’m on my way someplace else. But home is where the heart beats, we carry the spiral of culture that grows around our attention the way a snail carries its shell. We curl up and sleep in it, and Waiting for the Bomb wakes me where I’m sleeping. I listen with eyes closed because did you ever wake a cat just to let it know how comfortable it looked? I stretch while Ravenstine purrs, but this doesn’t answer my question.


There comes a moment, there always comes a moment, even if I don’t recognize it, of enchantment, lets me step through the doorway. It happens with music, with books, with movies. Once inside, I give myself to whatever it is, and it gives more back than if I stayed outside. Sometimes I’ve no choice but stay outside because, no matter how much I want to go through, no open sesame, the door stays closed. I stand there with eyes open, ears open, hopeful to take whatever’s offered—but how do I know what’s going on beyond the door, in the other room?


I must humble myself before the work of art, and it must welcome me. Sometimes it’s possible to admire something from the outside, but it’s a habit that encourages small talk, and if you ever elbowed your way through a crowd of outsiders to get to what they’re talking about, you know the real thing’s not a game of this is good, this is better, that’s bad, this is best. If life is long, where’s the harm wasting some of it playing king of the hill?—except some old farts are playing it still. I’m an old fart myself, but all I have to say is the golden bough is found where the sunlight strikes, and you can see why I need to ask am I being honest because I want to like this and I don’t even need to knock, the door swings wide, in I go.


It’s too easy. I feel like a thief.


I don’t know Allen Ravenstine, tho I’ve seen a few fotos, he’s just a name, but it’s a name I’ve known forty years where does the time go? Maybe not even a name, more a label for somewhere in my experience of musical pleasure, part of the classic line-up of Pere Ubu when they found their way to my ears. I never analyse music, even when I’m making it, so I don’t know why, after nearly forty years, New Picnic Time, which I’ve played many many times, is always new, it still surprises me. How can a surprise last so long? And when I think of it, I don’t pull out Ravenstine’s contribution, though it’s an integral part of why it delights me.


Later, on The Tenement Year, (it must be more than a tenement since I listened to it) he’s particularly prominent, laying down a magic carpet of effervescence on which the band ride as they churn out their crowd-pleasing anthems. (On my home planet, which is in some ways a lot like this one, Pere Ubu were VERY big. I never really understood this planet.) But, while he stuck around for the recording of Cloudland, he was all but absent from the rather wonderful Worlds in Collision. He took off for clouds of his own, leaving his synthesizer behind.


More than two decades later, he plugged in again, the pretext of a Canadian documentary yielding a duet with Robert Wheeler and two albums’ worth of material, released as City Desk and Farm Report. He followed that up with Pharaoh’s Bee. Now this.


But I haven’t been plugged in for years, so it’s a surprise, the way bandcamp was a surprise when I stumbled across it, and a surprise when I was happily browsing bandcamp, look, there’s Pere Ubu, that led me to recall a small, modulated blip that crossed my radar two or three years back—Ravenstine’s reprise. So I wonder: is it out here?


What’s out here is a new album, so I give it my ears. I like it so much I start pouring the tracks into my ears untitled. But the sleeve notes give me the big picture, and this is how I put the pieces together:


The first track puzzles me until I listen to a few more, but it’s just what the title says, an intro, a reminder the war is over, we won didn’t we? But did you really think everything would be the way it was before?


The title track tells us no, things have changed. (And another thing, another thing that tin soldier theme reminds me is this is a matter of life and death, a black & white heaven, death during wartime funneled into a clinical, well-ordered reception area, there are more things, fuck, you may be astonished but what had you any right to expect after that murderous children’s party you thought was your life? Is this all there is? Isn’t it all just too much? I must of been what, ten or eleven when I saw that movie, it gave me the creeps but I loved it anyway.)


The third track is bracketed by a sawbell. Gentle stately oompahs while I settle and look around at the other seats, people coming in, taking off their coats, the exits, the ceiling, the curtain, waiting for the lights to go down. Maybe the title tells me a trip to Versailles is in the offing. We can walk into the past because so much persists we’re apt to be puzzled when we open our eyes and notice we’re no longer at home there. Transient and insubstantial, we are driven from our home by the winds of time.


The title of the fourth track is a pun, I think, on the cover cartoon, a sailor on the rag in foreign parts, but for me the whole story is that high-pitched warbling. Good dog. Here comes the concrete. Same kind of thing in some of the later tracks: the organized foreground is bones that walk around, but how do you tell one skellington from the next? By what hangs over it, of course, expression and gesture.


The fifth is very, um, musical. (I told you I was no good at this kind of thing.) Hurry, hurry, but an urgency that sounds optimistic, purposeful, but physical and a bit empty-headed. Then suddenly, on track six, I get it—the beacon, the radio, an ominous questioning wheeze, astonished anxious triplets—this is music for a modern dance-theatre piece: the beacon sputnik, the Russians out there, over our heads, so the performers do some heavy Russian worrying, I can see all these gray flannel suits like the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while a worried mother’s anguished expression implores us to: THINK OF THE CHILDREN. After the show, we sit around in a dimly spotlit booth drinking espresso and seriously discussing the state of the world. Is there hope? We must be the hope of the future.


In the next track the urgency is anxious. Doom-haunted strings agitate over tremulous sighs and mutterings that become a cat’s howls or a baby’s cry. Funny how a cat can sound so like a child and how some people hate cats. 


“Day Shift” also reminds me of the fanfare for car horns in Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, and it reminds me Pere Ubu were serious mischief-makers, generous at their best, funny as a grinning skull on the day of the dead. Speaking of which, track nine. Grand Central Station. I can never come here without remembering when there were people. Their ghosts are around me, standing very still, each one of them listening for the ghosts of everyone else. (A few days later my imagination is haunted by not so much a tune, but an atmosphere, a moment in music I must’ve known for years. Takes me half an hour to realise it’s this.) The tenth is another track for standing around to: a pervasive melancholy, what are we waiting for? Keep watching the skies. It’ll be just like the fourth of July, except when they land.


“Out Late” is the big one. Back to Altair-4. One of those dials lights up when birds fly south in the winter. But after all these years this is my chance to do more than take the guided tour, this is my chance to look for myself, to learn. You should see my new mind. There’s more in it than I can tell, maybe more than I can understand. I’ll be back for more, so I might as well ask: what am I listening to? I don’t know, won’t know unless I listen, and whatever I said about what went before, forget that too. I recognize some of Ravenstine’s points of reference, we share, to some extent, a culture, he elicits my sympathy, but do I invent—am I trained by my history to invent what the language of this music means? The sleeve notes reassure me I’m not so far off the mark, but here’s where the album slips its reins and there’s enough space around the question to find out. Maybe for some this might be just music from an old-fashioned future, a saucers and spacesuit pastiche, but it’s precisely here the sound welcomes me to cast off my tether and explore. If not a music without reference, neither is it exhausted by precedent—not a sonic novelty, but a language available for generating new statements and making new discoveries. Step through the door, don’t expect me to tell you which way is up.


Track twelve’ll give you something to hold onto—a brief one two three one two three, haunted by theremin—before the “Spirits” on track thirteen call you back to the forbidden planet (or anywhere you want to come and go on these layers of fizzle and radio whine).


But the next two tracks throw me somewhat. Maybe the first thing I hear is Harry Partch’s “Even Wild Horses”, but then it reminds me what Stephen Sellars wrote all those years ago, “Thoughts are all carried on the same signal, transmitted by the Central Broadcasting Network Tower, located at the corner of First and Eternity, so it’s hardly a surprise some turn out to be the same, or nearly the same.” I wonder if we’ve been channeling the same material, but Ravenstine’s handling is more assured, more complex, his sound cleaner. Even so, I can’t help hearing it as something with an imperative to which I’m responsible, and when I step outside to think about that, the door closes. Where’s the key? My mistake, this deserves better, so I listen again, learn to go with the ebb and flow, to what flows into the absences after the drums, before the fanfares return—some strangled Jon Hassell trumpet, maybe—and it begins to sound more like itself.


Track sixteen reminds me that music is the science of modulating correctly. Takes me back, but not so far—if I listened to this thirty-five years ago maybe I’d be tired hearing it by now. Maybe not. Maybe it only sounds familiar because I’m not listening hard enough. It’s often worth taking a second look in the mirror.


Seventeen: sometimes you wish you could get better reception, but this comes through loud and clear, the walking bass and late-nite piano. The interference is good too.


Last track. Is it my imagination or are the trains running again? It’s a shame, I used to like trains. Maybe there’ll be something on the radio.


None of which answers my question am I being honest with myself. Is it just nostalgia, or a reflex? Not much point trying to be objective about music—that’s just politics, tribalism and one-upmanship—but if all I can tell you is it tickles me, why should I expect you to smile, and why should you care? Well, you needn’t. But there are eight billion stories on this naked planet and, given that my auditory and intellectual equipment are probably unremarkable, it’s unlikely I’m unique in finding this stuff endearing, haunting, funny. So take this for what it’s worth:


I’m grateful for this album. It may be no recommendation to anyone that I feel it welcomes me, that from across the mysterious distances between people somebody made something that accommodates my interest and delights my ears; but Allen Ravenstine has a knack for locating the marrow of sonic pleasure and I think he ought to be encouraged. Listen to it and, if you like it, buy it. In the States it’s distributed by Morphius Records, in Europe by ReR MEGACORP, in Japan by LOCUS SOLUS, or go to bandcamp and download it. I believe it can be had in exchange for glass beads made from Kalahari sand. But distributing cds is also a business, so they’ll probably accept money.