the idea of writing about "obscure music" is such a hipster trope that i hate myself for even thinking of doing it, but occasionally there are just these little undiscovered gems that have managed to slip beneath the cultural waves through no fault of their own. lots of music is forgotten and deservedly so, but there are a lot of others who never managed to get enough traction to form a more broadly recognised subculture despite being well-crafted, innovative and original. those of us who have a long-term relationship with off-kilter music of various sorts all have our special cases where we think a group, or groups got the short end of the historical stick.
one of the lucky breaks i've had in my life was that i got to spend the first half of the nineties working in various capacities at a radio station that exposed me to a wide variety of sounds. partly, that came through the on-air programming, but ckdu-fm was also home to a record library that really belongs in a museum somewhere. largely accumulated in the early to mid-eighties, there are records in there that even the artists probably don't remember recording. one of my favourite activities, something that cheered me when i was feeling down, was spending time in that record library grabbing random records and seeing what they brought me.
it was in one of these exploratory missions that i first came in contact with k.o. city studios and their "grindstone" series of compilations. i'd actually heard one of the label's artists, data bank a, courtesy of a boyfriend who knew more about music than i did, who had picked up a 12" by the band. when i saw their name on a compilation called "ears to the grindstone", with a surprisingly unmolested cover, i figured, i'd enjoyed what i'd heard (sort of a mix of sisters of mercy with front 242), so i might as well see what was on the rest of the record.
as i was listening, i noticed that there were more "grindstone" compilations- "back to" and "turn of" and that all seemed to feature some of the same core artists, none of whom (save data bank a) i'd ever heard of. that's a heck of a gauntlet to throw down in front of someone in their early twenties who's into stuff that's almost willfully obscure (ironically much of it now more widely available than these compilations). the music was a strange hybrid of off-kilter techno-pop, clunky "industrial dance" tracks, blissful electronic ditties with rhythm but no beats, a sort of ur-ambient sound that groups like the orb would later play for tens of thousands, more experimental entries from artists who often crop up on cassette compilations from the era, working with primitive tools to create collages and angular-sounding assaults on the ears.
the label k.o. city studio was established and run by andrew szava-kovats. based in massachusetts, the label served as a way for him to circulate his own varied recordings under a number of different projects (dominion, data bank a, parade of sinners) and also gave a home to the grindstones. sonically, there's little that holds these albums together, but they hold together they do as exemplars of a diy ethic that allowed artists of various sorts to work together to get their music out into the world at a time when doing so was prohibitively expensive to individuals.
as quirky and intriguing as the music can be, it remains unjustly neglected, probably because so much of it is difficult to define. there are comparisons that work individually- severed heads, front 242, section 25- but defining the sound of the label is like nailing jelly to a wall. and ironically, as disparate as the individual pieces are, there is a definite sense of an overall unity that surpasses the parts.
while i was trolling the internet, as i often do, wondering if anyone else remembered these compilations as fondly as i did, i was surprised to learn that andrew szava-kovats is actually still active (or was as recently as 2009) and has been creating various sorts of electronic music steadily since the early-mid eighties. (i was also surprised to learn that he's a canuck, originally hailing from edmonton.) much of his older music can be ordered as cdrs or digital downloads. sadly, the grindstone compilations don't appear to be among those available (although a single, pristine copy of the second one is for sale in the vintage vinyl section of the site).
another revelation was that szava-kovats himself has worked to preserve the memories of the scene, directing a documentary on the subject that was featured in the west hollywood international film festival. the film is likewise available on the data bank a web site. (he's also directed a documentary on the local food movement and the last remaining family farm in lowell, massachusetts.)
for me, the grindstone compilations never lose that weird, lovable quality that caught my attention in the record library all those years ago. a quarter century after their release, there is still nothing that quite matches their sound, at once accessible and off-kilter, still little gems waiting to be rediscovered. i wish mr. szava-kovats success in keeping his back catalogue out there (and i hope that sometime, he will be able to make these comps available once again). there may never be an audience of millions for these releases, but i think there will always be some who are entranced by their charms. i have a feeling you'll be hearing some of these at the next dj kali "caustic lounge" set on april 6.