Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Allen Ravenstine and Albert Dennis' "Terminal Drive"

This release -- a scant 20 minutes of music, available on CD, download, or one-sided red vinyl LP -- is a crown jewel in Smog Veil Records' Cleveland-centric "Platters du Cuyahoga" series. Terminal Drive is a truly legendary (it took years to track down a complete copy) 1975 electro-acoustic composition that earned Allen Ravenstine a place in Pere Ubu's original lineup, and provided a title to the disc of pre-Ubu rarities on the band's Datapanik In the Year Zero box set, on which an excerpt from the piece appeared.

Together with the Robert Bensick Band's French Pictures in London (recorded in 1975, released in 2016) and the loosely constituted improv outfit Hy Maya's The Mysticism of Sound and Cosmic Language (recorded in 1972-73 and due for release later this year), Terminal Drive is a product of the artist colony that briefly flourished in the Plaza, an inner city Cleveland apartment building, co-owned by Ravenstine, where the seeds of Ubu's experimentalism germinated.

In Nick Blakey's meticulously detailed liner notes (based on extensive interviews with Clevo scene participants, and always a highlight of "Platters du Cuyahoga" releases), musician Cynthia Black recalls the milieu thus: "Being there was one night after another of children growing up together...but every one of them was talented, driven, pissed off, angry, drunk, stoned, and trying to get laid, all the time in a city that smelled like Hell because they were still making steel in it." This music comes from a time when Cleveland was notorious for its river catching fire, and a small underground coterie of musical outcasts nurtured their visions and played infrequent gigs there, documenting their efforts on tapes that languished unreleased for decades -- pariahs in their time, now hailed as prophets of punk and post-punk style.

Many experimental musicians strive to approach music with a "beginner's mind," but Ravenstine truly possessed such when he recorded Terminal Drive (Dennis' string bass parts were added later). Unschooled as a musician but interested in sound, he started out making field recordings and was introduced to synthesizers by Bensick -- a multi-instrumentalist who was circuit-bending guitar pedals into oscillators -- and wound up providing tapes of his own electronic music (realized on an ElectroComp EML 200 synth) to the dance department at Cleveland State University. While Terminal Drive -- at different times spectral, kosmische, and menacing -- might inspire comparisons to the works of electronic pioneers like Stockhausen, Cage, or Boulez, Ravenstine denies their influence. Credit instead the industrial brutality of the factory and the rust-belt anomie of dying cities.

After playing on five albums with Pere Ubu, Ravenstine spent the rest of the '80s performing with Red Krayola and David Thomas' Wooden Birds. (His short story "Music Lessons," anthologized in The Da Capo Book of Rock and Roll Writing, provides a harrowing account of his Ubu tenure.) Recently retired after 25 years as an airline pilot, Ravenstine released a solo album, The Pharaoh's Bee, on Ubu's Hearpen label in 2015. But Terminal Drive remains his signal achievement and earns its trailblazing reputation.


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