Michael Chamy loves his new Speak and Spell.
Sitting outside Recycled Books on the Denton Courthouse Square, Chamy's jittery fingers fly around the toy's letters and buttons, producing a stream of squawks and metallic-anthropoid vocalizations that sound something like Max Headroom going nine rounds with the Hal 9000. Chamy, a former music writer who is now half of Denton experimental band Zanzibar Snails, is demonstrating his latest addition to the group's sonic arsenal for me. The toy has been modified with a deliberately shorted connection or "circuit bender," which is a common tool used by experimental and noise rock bands to create freakish, unpredictable sounds that the manufacturer—not to mention God—never intended.
Chamy's Snails, along with bands like Violent Squid, Geistheistler, Mistress and Animal Forces, are part of a minor renaissance in experimental music that Denton has experienced over the past few years. All of these bands use various forms of distilled noise, feedback, samples or other electronic sounds in compositions that are inchoate and unreproducible from one performance to the next. Other adventurous acts like Shiny Around the Edges, The Great Tyrant, Eat Avery's Bones and Mom incorporate some of these elements into their otherwise structured, if not quite traditional, contexts, and you can even hear the experimental mood spilling over into straightforward indie acts like Street Hassle or Matthew and the Arrogant Sea.
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Both Chamy and Shiny Around the Edges' Michael Seman point to the 2006 experimental/folk festival Strategies of Beauty, which they both helped organize, as a major precipitating event in this recent resurgence (although both are quick to also point out previous festivals, like the first Melodica Festival, as well as a long history of non-conventional music in Denton). It was not long after that first Strategies of Beauty festival (there have been two since) that a number of experimental acts—as well as noise music house venues like House of Tinnitus—began to emerge.
The motivation for making such un-commercial sounds is varied, but Seman says part of it is a reaction to the banality of pop culture: "It's natural because pop has become so sterile that the only response is to take something like hard-core to the next level."
But experimentation such as that practiced by Zanzibar Snails and Violent Squid also has the effect of expanding the musical palette for the whole music community, says Chamy.
"We like to open people's ears to things," he says. "We hope it's evocative enough to provoke something. The point is to redefine what music is."