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Boyd Rice - The Black Album: A Retrospective
Was it really all that special and glittery?
Released in 1977, with only 86 copies, and reissued on the Mute label in 1981, Boyd Rice’s self-titled release, otherwise known as The Black Album, pioneered sampling, collage art, the album as an artistic object (think Object-oriented ontology), martial industrial music, and is the birth of transgressive symbolism.
Honestly, I never liked Rice’s music. I’m a Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Nitzer Ebb kind of guy for many reasons. Rice is not a pop musician, nor is it proper music at all. It’s an artistic statement around design, the medium of sound, and the attitude of punk.
“Yeah I like that, I wish, I started doing that, I was going to do a book where I thought, I know so many interesting people, and I'd have so many interesting conversations, I'm just going to start recording whenever I go out to dinner with somebody or something, or whenever I'm on the phone talking to somebody, I'm going to record this stuff. And I did for about a year or something, and a lot of it, it's very funny, you know if you're out at dinner and you're talking, and you turn on a tape recorder, you know, it gets silent very quickly.”
I have done a similar kind of artistic technique, where I have recorded conversations without people’s consent or will, or I remind them in advance or later that I have a recording. It’s bizarre what people are willing to say when the camera is off. A great example is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s film, The Confessions of Winifred Wagner, where Winifred Wagner, unknown to her surroundings, talks about her love for Hitler and the Nazi regime. Unethical? Or completely natural? Those who hang on to the bullshit value of “trust” don’t understand that truth is louder than subculture. It’s all about the moment and the regret that comes with never capturing the moment. Winifred is natural in her environment. The artist documents the process and frames it as a picture.
Just like in Syberberg’s film, The Black Album is an artistic achievement in music technology, and its self-publishing effort against the current zeitgeist is influential. Field recording, as an artistic medium, is an innovation. The recording technique captures the real secret behind the surface; the meaning of cultural anthropology.
Rice applies a tape loop technique to let samples naturally play in a loop until they become something else. If we try and say the word “Toyboat” three times fast, our tongues will slip up, and by the third time, the word become “Toybahh.” Other untitled tracks, like A4 and A5, give us the feeling of a mirage, of a dated synthpop track, but are utterly fake. The tape loop starting over again creates a crescendo of bass and snare hits, faking a drum hit. As if Rice was trying to make a sinister type of backmasking record, where the listener can subjectively enjoy the sounds at the speed and placement of the needle. Boards of Canada’s 2002 album, Geogaddi, utilizes backmasking, and some have enjoyed the entire album in reverse rather than forward. The Black Album is no different. As if a girl pop group has become a hardcore sludge jam overnight.
Industrial music relied solely on samples of military marches, political speeches, news reports, sounds of the city, and the collage of totalitarian imagery. Rice helped pave the way for future industrial acts to use samples basy their synthesizers (and later, with guitars). The track B3 is like something Tangerine Dream would concoct in a Berlin School manner. Listening to samples, from afar or through a filter or distortion, tricks our perception like watching clouds in the sky. The 1997 album by The Flaming Lips, Zaireeka, was released on four CDs, which required each to play simultaneously at once in four different sound systems, to create the effect of a real 4-track band being played in a living room. The Black Album, however, requires speed and turntable placement, where each listen is transformed by the pitch and stutters of the lock grooves. Both Rice and The Flaming Lips are aware that the album is an object, and can provide different experiences to different listeners. Whatever that comes from the power of the album’s front cover art, or the inserts or lyric book that comes with it, the listener cherishes the album as an intimate work of art about the self.
However, this comes with the drawback that the self is based solely on emotional experiences rather than objective realities. Like an interest in classical music, an objective stance would judge a musical recording on its pitch composition as well as the lyrical and performative undertones the audio recording possesses. However, noise music is just that; annoying noise. Some noise does have a rhythmic tone to it, like on The Black Album, but most of the time, it’s a wallpaper collage of subjective meaning and mindless muzak of ambiance. The vaporwave genre is guilty of this pleasure, as it relies solely on the pleasure of the samples of the 1980s, Gen-X and Millennial nostalgia, and Asian culture. Perhaps dating back to Hip-Hop and Boom bap, there was always an interest in nostalgic drum breaks found on Soul and Jazz records from that generation’s itch. Sampling technology liberated the electronic musician and focused their efforts on an ideological hauntology that continues to enforce egalitarianism, global liberalism, and an intimate interest in consumer capitalism. Industrial music, and the work of Boyd Rice, do the opposite and question these equal values upon the use of repetitive samples.
Rice has a childhood interest in the occult. This later became apparent when he joined The Church of Satan, where Satanists admired the backmasking and meditation hymns that Rice created with his tape loop techniques. Rice is exposing the hidden agenda and similarities behind the mainstream media and popular advertising. Along with Brian M. Clark, Shaun Partridge, and others, Rice formed the Unpop Art Movement which creates pop art with an “unpopular” and fringe twist. I am a fan of this movement too, and tried to incorporate their "avant-garde hate” into my art direction and aesthetics. As of 2023, Boyd Rice and Whalesong Partridge continue to be representatives of The Partridge Family Temple and create Unpop art, and similar hippy jokes around the 1960s to 70s pop culture, through their Instagram and activities around the Denver area.
Rice is a well-known prankster and is willing to take sides with subcultures that are against the state. Anywhere from “Ideology is Toxic” to “Victimhood is Powerful,” Rice hits hard against the liberal state and its hypocrisies. While Rice claims he is not far-right or far-left, he does advocate the wild boy attitude of the pagan motorcycle club, the satanist rocker, and the avant-garde skinhead culture around them. For example, take a look at this “prank” where Rice and Whalesong got in a group picture with black conservatives, Diamond and Silk:
I didn’t believe in White Boy Summer till I saw this picture!
The 1990s interest in radical transgressive culture has always interested me. Rice has common connections with Anton LaVey, Adam Parfrey, Douglas Pearce, Michael Moynihan, Jim Goad, Jim Thirlwell, Tony Wakeford, Rose McDowall, Daniel Miller, Z'EV, V. "Valhalla" Vale, Rachel Haywire, Richard Wolstencroft, Wesley Eisold, Ian Brady, Charles Manson, Matt Skiba, and even Marilyn Manson! This rhizome is unique in understanding the development of avant-garde hate, post-neofolk, and transgressive art. In the development of contemporary white nationalism, Dr. Gregory Robert Johnson was a fan of Michael Moynihan, and Johnson’s own eccentric white nationalist journal, Counter-Currents, is a continuation of his interest in pagan and martial industrial aesthetics found in Rice’s circle. Less to do with “saving the white race” as praxis, and more about the subculture and desire to do so, Rice continues to uphold the Nurse with Wound list tradition in the current era.
While The Black Album is only around 40 minutes, it is an interesting and thought-provoking work of proto-industrial music. It is highly overrated because of its existence in the late 70’s, and is it pretentious to own one of those 86 copies. The record was modernized by 1981, and distributed widely. Likely 20 years later, this is when the nepotistic connections popularized Rice’s early releases. While not a pop or structured music release, The Black Album has its brief moments. The album does not hold up in 2023, and like every other “shitpost” of vaporwave releases found on Bandcamp.com, The Black Album blends right in. Other than the colors white or black, is nobody going to bring up the pop sensation that is Starflyer 59’s 1994 untitled “Silver” album, with just a silver-colored album cover? What if music could own a color? What would a color sound like?
I give the album 2 out of 5 stars. Mute Records just got off the ground and needed something extra to promote themselves. I’m sorry, but the next release, Speak & Spell by Depeche Mode, left an incredible cultural impact. I don’t care if Rice was only “second” from John Cage to utilize a turntable or sampler. The bigger picture is the subculture, the transgressive art, and technique, and aesthetics that Rice continues to promote through his art and his followers. Question the fans, not the music. How can I apply avant-garde hate and the resurrection of the martial industry to new electronic music? As some might say, “fun is the law!”