All Strange Beasts of the Past
EJ 64 CD
release date Nov 18 2002
All star cast of Loren Chasse, Glenn Donaldson, Rob Reger and Steven R Smith team up for their fourth platter of beautiful sounds from the environment and beyond. Like camping out with Neandethal man at the moment electricity was discovered.
EJ 53 CD
released Nov 5 2002
Pianist Rob Reger, sound sculptor Loren Chasse and former Mirza members Steven R Smith and Glenn Donaldson make up the mysterious Thuja, who return with their third album of inspired forest clamor.
Unlike their many space-travelling comtemporaries, Thuja are thankfully grounded on Earth and the many sounds of nature and machines. These expanding and billowing noises are ideal for meditation or examination and carry the rare trait of begging repeated listenings as soon as they end.
EJ 44 CD
Ghost Plants is as savory and involved as improv music gets. It isnt a sound effects record but should be. There are piano, guitar, percussion, electronics and other shit mingling freely but in a cohesive way.
released Jan 2002
Someone else's bio:
First of all, it's pronounced "thoo-zhuh," and it's the genus name of North American cedar trees. It's an oddly appropriate name for this San Francisco band, which features members of Mirza. Thuja's amorphous layers of piano, organ, guitar, accordion, percussion, and electronics swirl together into woodsy environments of sound, reinforced by natural phenomena such as snapping sticks or scraping rocks. Listening to Thuja is like navigating a hazy dreamscape: things seem familiar, but it is impossible to predict what will happen next. Sometimes shafts of light filter through the canopy of sound; other times the pieces remain dark and mysterious. But Thuja is more intriguing than frightening.
Thuja is no stranger to Broken Face, but I know I've never seen a Thuja record in a store, and there are plenty of listeners in-the-know who haven't a clue about Thuja. That much said, Thuja are one of the most consistantly interesting new bands; quickly picked up by Emperor Jones, and subsequently available to anyone who has actually heard of them and can get off a mail order or has the internet.
What sets Thuja apart from so many other bands is their 'no electric' or at least 'reduced electric' policy. Somewhat akin to Ben Chasny's philosophy (at least in practice), Thuja's output consists of a richly organic tapestry that is deeply connected with impressions and inspirations of nature. The name alone meant something to my Botanist friends (though I do not recall what it meant), while various covers depict plant structures, cells, etc.
Where Suns differs the most from previous albums is in just how empty and still the whole process is. Perhaps the intention on Suns (if indeed their entire focus has always been about plants), is to capture something of that autotrophic process. Short of thermal vents on the ocean floor, the sun remains the ultimate source of energy for all life, and with the exception of the more recent appearance of animals, the process of transmuting energy into life has never been violent or even active. I may be ascribing a thematic vision to a mere collection of pieces, but the truth is in the listening, and Suns is somber, hypnotic listening. Even when the last couple tracks break out from this mold of quiet, organic growth, they quickly return to the life-giving drone of Suns.
One last, and rather bizarre comparison, Suns has begun to remind me oddly of the ReR group, Biota. Not in goals, but in instrumentation. But whatever it was Biota got wrong, Thuja is getting it right here (as they have on their previous releases.) I'm prone to think that what Thuja and a few others have been accomplishing as of late (note the Kawabata/Youngs VHF release for instance) is really what New Age always should have been. I remember only vaguely some of the big empty spaces on the early Windham Hill releases; I can't even recall if they achieved what they set out to do, but certainly Thuja has managed just such a feat. Well worth searching out! (Broken Face #16)
Thuja "Ghost Plants"
Perhaps this is a naturally grown "environmentally friendly" ambient, perhaps folky improvisations on unfolky instrumentation? The whole reminds me of Pelt or Kemialliset Ystavat, but instead of traditional instruments we have everything from a piano to piles of junk. These psychedelic improvisations recall a hike through a forest of sounds - even from the synthesizers, the sonorities grow out as if naturally. At times the proceedings get quite noisy, occasionally simple and melodious, but throughout I get the impression that the musicians calmly and deeply ponder each sound. Definitely original, difficult to describe music. (Cold, a Polish zine)
We loved their debut cd The Deer Lay Down Their Bones (released on our own Andee's tUMULt label, in fact) and try not to miss their rare live performances, which in addition to their transcendental music also often incorporate video projections of trees, piles of branches, and other atmospheric, extra-musical additions. With Ghost Plants, the four members of Thuja -- AQ-fave experimental sound artist Loren Chasse, pianist Rob Reger, and former members of ambient-psych rockers Mirza Stephen R. Smith and Glenn Donaldson -- have crafted another utterly lovely, improv instrumental masterpiece! In comparison to their first album, this disc seems darker and heavier, somehow more "rock" production-wise although Thuja are hardly a rock band. Thuja's music is very organic and "natural" sounding, with their quietly meandering, melodic guitar and piano explorations seeming set amidst wood, wind and water -- you can imagine a Thuja concert taking place on a darkened forest floor, with Chasse's crackling branches and stone rubbings.
At their most "rock" Thuja goes "kraut" with Chasse's drum-kit rhythms, and at their most "experimental ambient" the tinklings of percussion blend with ominous (yet pleasant) humming drones(r)apes of organ and bass and other things quite blissfully.
Whilst not exactly 'folky' you can still draw a connection between the woodland vistas of Thuja and the fractured folkpsych of Tower Recordings, or Finland's Kemialliset Ystavat (Thuja being more abstract than KY, who are more abstract than TR). We'd also cite the likes of Labradford, Richard Youngs/Simon Wickham-Smith, the No Neck Blues Band, the Taj Mahal Travelers, Popol Vuh, Gunter Schickert, and :Zoviet*France: as fellow travelers in the psychedelic realms that Thuja carefully tread. This disc offers 13 untitled tracks in just under 40 minutes -- a very nice length indeed for an afternoon's reverie, perhaps one of the few improv-drone discs you'll find yourself hitting the "repeat" button on frequently. If you enjoy the solo work of Stephen R. Smith or L. Chasse (also of id battery and Coelacanth), or liked Mirza's drifting atmospheres, and haven't listened to Thuja yet, what are you waiting for? Everyone else, check ALL these guys stuff out, starting with this disc! So beautiful. (Aquarius Records' catalog)
Thuja are a quartet based out of San Francisco. They play improvisational music and mostly lay down live takes, no processing. Glenn Donaldson and Stephen Smith were former members of psychedelicists Mirza, sound collagist Loren Chasse has worked with Id Battery, and pianist Rob Reger provides the most distinctive element of the band's sound-- his piano lines add a slight sense of structure to the instrumental meanderings. Thuja don't write songs, per se. Rather, their albums flow together like field recordings of poltergeists romping through abandoned factories. It's intense, sometimes dissonant music, but often highly rewarding.
The review of Thuja's The Deer Lay Down Their Bones was my first for Pitchfork, so it might be forgiven that I never quite said outright what I was getting at. I mentioned that one of the virtues of ambient and improv music is that you can pay different levels of attention to it. It's an ideal form of music to play while at work, because you can get too caught up in pop songs and their catchy choruses. But I neglected to illustrate the implications of Thuja's music, which sounds for all the world like springs busting out of clockfaces at times. Their structural unsteadiness was a secret pleasure for me during the nine-to-five, a way to fantasize the collapse of all the machines of industry.
Ghost Plants is more of the same. Again, with the new album's title and the tree photo in the insert, they seem to make an appeal to nature. The cedar (genus: Thuja) can cause dermatitis to those who touch its sap, but refined tinctures can ease a variety of toxic reactions. Ghost plants, a more informal grouping, are defined by their benign nature, so it's interesting that the music here should be more dark than that of the band's debut. You're greeted with the death knell of a chandelier, almost, sounds of glass fracturing and being swept about. Enter a guitar chord, plucked over and over, monotonous, dull yet aggressive. A few piano notes whisper from some faded place, but it does little to temper the alien modem-garble patches of noise.
Each of the tracks are untitled, but they cut between each other more obviously now. Track three begins abruptly with hand-drumming and chainlike rattling, shackles being shaken perhaps. It's the only overt rhythm on the entire album, but of course the funk quickly fades from the musique concrète to be replaced by thick keyboard hum and phantom synth oscillations. The stark, oppressive atmosphere moves towards a more quiet, fluid flow by track six. Reger taps out short Morse code messages on the piano, and slivers of heartfelt melody are wrangled out of the guitar. The piano cadences and reverbed clangs later on would feel dissonant if left on their own, but cycled together they create a whirlpool similar to Günter Müller and Lê Quan Ninh's work on La Voyelle Liquide.
The album shifts into a more appreciable silence, but could hardly be called peaceful. There's a moment when you realize the silt that's been sifting through the background is gradually becoming a giant cloud of distortion, shimmering prettily and yet hiding disturbing things inside like the best Ah Cama-Sotz tracks. And though there are signs of Harold Budd-style minimalist composition near the end, the faintest sample of a woman's voice singing wordlessly probably ends things best. Thuja's environmental allusions just don't hold truck; I'll opt for the other image in the title: Ghost Plants as phantom factories. If The Deer Lay Down Their Bones was the sound of those rusty iron cogs turning, these later tracks are the humming power sources that feed the wheels. Though I preferred the more consistent segues on the debut, it's amazing that this music is played by human beings. Fans of the Shalabi Effect and Einstürzende Neubauten would do well to track this one down. (Christopher Dare, Pitchfork)
Like documentary filmmakers, there's a segment of musicians obsessed with the idea that reality is the most powerful medium. Musique concrete collagists like Luc Ferrari, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and even Negativland use field recordings and samples of everyday sounds and recombine them to suit their own muse. A different stab at this kind of musical vérité is taken by Thuja, four improvisers who re-create the sounds of nature and culture using exclusively live instruments, both traditional and those found by the side of the road. Featuring Steven R. Smith of solo and Mirza fame, Ghost Plants is rich in scenery, and leans on a wide variety of casual-sounding percussive sounds. Like Ron Fricke's 1992 film Baraka, Ghost Plants works as a scenic ethnography, taking us eastward via fretwork that lands somewhere between Eastern traditional music and the sound of rusty bedsprings. The most successful tracks are dominated by an eerie organ that hums like the wind swirling around a jagged mountain. (Michael Chamy, Austin Chronicle)
If you pronounce Thuja's name "thoo-jah," in Gujarathi it would mean, "you go." Although this sounds like a command, when you put the CD in, it seems more like a directive. "You go there, into this open field, this darkened cavern, or these aquatic depths." Their moniker (actually referencing the North American cedar tree) feels like an invitation outside of the concrete jungle of my urban life, and into imaginative territories. There's something of an outsider touch to this, as if the band was referencing musical traditions outside those I'm familiar with. Track three (none of the tracks seem to be titled) starts out like a ceremonial march that I swear I've heard at a wedding somewhere, but ends up in Roy Montgomery droning territory.
Of the members of the band, percussionist Loren Chasse is the only one that I am familiar with, via id battery. One can easily see a link between the loose soundscaping on that ensemble, and the slightly folk inflected instrumental psych-drone-wander that permeates all 13 of these tracks. Other members include Stephen R. Smith, Glenn Donaldson and pianist Rob Reger. The instrumentation recalls rhBand, and occasionally Pelt in terms of recognizable instrumentalism played against atmospheric drones and scrapes, but an easier reference point is The No Neck Blues Band, although much less epic, trance inducing freakout, and more stare at your toes and contemplate their essence swirling atmospherics. This is hot weather music conducive to lemonade and beer on your porch, clouds and cars passing occasionally, and a creaking rocking chair. 13 tracks, 40 minutes. One to grow with. (Nirav Soni, Ink 19)
Zeldzame improvisaties rond geluidseffecten. Vaag duikt Thuja in de geluiden van moeder aarde. Instrumentaal, ongrijpbaar, bruusk en donker. (Konkurrent site)
Visit the Steven R Smith website.
Visit the Jeweled Antler website.
Purchase Thuja recordings.