Chrome - "Alien Soundtracks"

By Scott Colburn

Hello, my name is Scott, and I was an obsessive-compulsive record collector throughout the eighties. No - truly - my collecting was a very real, very powerful, almost physical need that I had no intention of controlling; when I heard a band I liked, I couldn't rest until I had every record they put out, and the rush at completing a collection was excruciating in its bliss! Of course, as with any addiction my need grew and took on grander proportions over time, which is how I eventually went from innocent dabbling with band recordings to the twisted, sordid underbelly of label collecting. My favorites became SST, Dischord, Alternative Tentacles, Ralph Records and Subterranean - all wild, varied independent labels uninhibited by the large corporate-mill type drive to make a buck at the expense of true creative brilliance.

Subterranean was a great fit to this Indiana boy's addiction, partially because their records were so cheap! Singles were $2/ppd, which fed my need well on my working-my-way-through-school-as-a-janitor salary. It was through the process of collecting Subterranean's entire catalogue (gimme gimme gimme!) that I came across a single and box set by a band named Chrome. I didn't know who Chrome was, of course, but it's not like I cared, either - it was a Subterranean release, so I had to have it regardless of its contents (addiction knows no logic). Salivating, I ordered the box set, but instead of receiving the fulfillment I desired, all I got was a letter of the most dreadful sort: "Sold Out". Noooooo! " I'm a label addict and can't complete my collection - SOMEONE COULD GET KILLED, HERE!"

My obsession grew immediately and dramatically, and soon I had friends - most of whom were in the same addictive hell I was in - looking all over the region for this bright, shining jewel (since I couldn't have it, I suddenly couldn't live without it). I think I became impossible to live with, but it's all a dark blur now. I actually lost a good friendship over this thing, surprise surprise: after a long and painful search, my roommate/fellow music addict came home from a trip t o St. Louis with the box set in-hand! Good friend, you think? Saved my world, you assume? Actually, the selfish rotten bastard would not relinquish the object of my desire to me, its rightful and most deserved owner! Turns out he'd heard Chrome - my Chrome - at some party and "liked it", and so when he found it he decided to keep it for himself. "Liked" it? Liked it? Here I couldn't draw another breath without it and he LIKED it? Oh, I saw red! I grew fangs! I devised horrid and painful ways for him to die in his sleep and burn in hell! This wasn't, after all, your average psychedelic rock ala Pink Floyd, this was something far deeper and much more clouded - it was a virtual audio drug that left a tangible chemical taste in your mouth, and I needed it!

Finally completely desperate, I made a last-ditch effort call to Subterranean Rec ords (it was that or detox). Maybe someone had an extra copy stuffed in a closet o r something. Steve Tupper (at the moment, God) answered the phone and muttered the magic words: "Yes, we have a few copies and are going to auction them off&qu ot; (the words of which I heard to the tune of "Yes, we have no bananas...&q uot; - I don't know why). I wanted to sell my soul, but could only send in a bid for $35 (practically a whole week's salary) and the anti-climatic ending to the s tory of my search is that I finally got that damn box set! Oh, the joy... I don't think I ate for a week, I just sat in my room and played those luscious six LPs over and over and over... drooling, giggling, rocking back and forth...

One particular record in this box set - "Alien Soundtracks" - changed my life. Originally issued in 1978 on the Siren label out of San Francisco, this was t heir second album, their first with member Helios Creed.

"Alien Soundtracks" begins with the slow upfade of a droning guitar and cymbal roll, building in intensity as it slowly pans from left to right. The c umulative anxiety this creates in the listener suddenly apexes dead-center as a slightly overdriven, mono drum track attacks in an odd, mechanical rhythm. Here is Chromosome Damage. The quality of this piece mirrors basement, garage or war ehouse space recordings as the air around the instruments reeks of distant mic placement. This piece actually sounds like a decent live recording, complete wit h vocals fighting to escape the din of garage acid rock.

You're fighting out on the streets
Put you with all the theives and cheats
Going off to fight in a war
I don't know why but I do know more

Synth drones, effected guitar, samples from old television ads, and fade-in of a nother garage-esque jam (featuring backward drums, classic fender guitar sounds with phase shifter, and Moog synth bass) finalize this extraordinary song. At one point, the backwards drugs - I mean, drums - abruptly reverse without the jam missing a beat , showcasing a mastery of tape editing unlike most others of the era . I can only imagine what their recording sessions were like - this record defin es project studio experimentation under the knife!

Steve Tupper (Subterranean) recently told me that this record was recorded entire ly "at home", most likely on a 1/2" eight track. Creative genius b egan with several jam sessions recorded on tape by whatever means necessary, whi ch were then carefully combed for basic tracks and cleverly edited with a healthy dose of experimental inquisitiveness. Overdubbing was completed on the cream of t he crop, and hands-on mixing occurred in the style of "everyone grab a knob and twist!" More editing, more effects, and more manipulation followed until finally... an absolute masterpiece! Every blessed moment includes garage-sounding jams, intros of noise, TV cutups, drones, fun with tape delays, and loads of ins pired effects.

The quintessential piece on "Alien Soundtracks" is Nova Feedback, wh ich concludes side one of the original LP. Nova Feedback opens with a multi tr ack pan-o-rama of guitar drones and noodling, which fades fast in to quick edit s followed closely by a bass and drum track that makes one's eyelids heavy and n eck go limp. A mono drum track is then introduced as a simple steady high hat beat with kick drum accents and phase shifter (this was the first time I ever heard phase shifter on drums - such an experience!). The entire ensemble is fleshed out with a soaring, slowly panned guitar drone accompanied by the perfect lead mel ody riff - the combination of so much creativity makes the head swim helplessly! W ho needs drums - I mean, drugs - when you can get so stoned listening to this piec e of sensory excellence?

Adding to its obvious appeal is that this record has an unusual fidelity, in gener al. The unique combination of low-fi and hi-fi sounds makes this recording difficu lt to pin down - it doesn't sound like a studio album, but most of the tracks are really well recorded, none-the-less. The mix is defined and refined, the edits are flawless, and the effects are tasteful and add to the beauty of the recorded track . But it's a far cry from Steely Dan - I'm sure no one knew what to think of this album when it came out... except, of course, that they had to have it.

This album is my perfect example of clear audio-artistic vision, which is the whol e point of this series of articles. From a Producer's standpoint, I revere "A lien Soundtracks" because it has a well-defined concept, and the quality is a lso consistent from track to track - the music flows logically and takes the liste ner on a little journey. This record may have been borne through the usual experim entation and jamming that most "garage bands" play around with, but it's clear that the members of Chrome are not only gifted in their crafts, they also h ad the insight to realise that serious editing and careful manipulations could pr ovide them with a clearer vision of what could be. What's more, they saw that tri mming the fat off the basic tracks could yield a wealth of material that could fu rther be folded, spindled, mutilated and polished in to a rather glorious thing. Their songs were constructed from freeform basics and then worked with surgeon's accuracy (though the use of overdubs, tape and effect manipulations), the end p roduct being musical genious. A quick review at the ten or so albums that follo wed "Alien Soundtracks" will reveal that Chrome's vision was firm in hand at the beginning of their career and remained focused throughout.

Alas, founding member Damon Edge is no longer with us, but Helios Creed has ha d a healthy solo career and is currently resurrecting Chrome, but with a diffe rent artistic vision. More power to you both - you've both apparently received hi gher inspirations than the rest of us!

Complete Chrome Discography