[19 June 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Don Preston is best known as the original keyboard player in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Preston played with the group from 1966 to 1974. But Preston has also had a hand in many other projects and styles. He has played with jazz musicians such as Elvin Jones and Charlie Haden, scored films, and even played on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.
Preston was also influenced by the early experimental and electronic music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and others. After designing his own modular synthesizer, he became friends with synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog and was one of the charter players of the famous Mini-Moog. It’s this experimental, electronic aspect of Preston’s career that Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 is concerned with. The set collects three previously-unreleased recordings: Electronic Music from 1967, Analog Heaven (1975), and Fred & Me, a 1982 collaboration with percussionist Fred Stofflet.
The title of Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 reflects the cold, methodical nature of the music within. There’s a reason why this wasn’t called, say, Beats, Melodies & Arrangements. Few types of music are more creepy than old, experimental synthesizer compositions. This trait was used to great effect by Goblin, John Carpenter, and others to score 1970s-era horror films. Indeed, Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 could serve as a soundtrack to some lost underground fright film. While Preston’s playing with the Mothers was often aggressive, the tones here are austere, slow-moving, and often marked by unnerving bursts of dissonant noise.
From a historical perspective, Electronic Music is the most interesting. The tension unfolds over 15 minutes of reverb-laden, percussive stabs, while synthesized waves of sound scratch around like rodents trying to scratch through the walls of an old, haunted house. A few minutes in comes a cacophony that sounds like a machine trying, and failing, to self-destruct. Imagine R2D2 having a nervous breakdown, and you’re halfway there. Stereo panning is used to great effect over the composition’s final third, as various synthetic waves slosh from side to side.
Consider Electronic Music was created in 1967, and if nothing else it is an early treatise on the extremes to which analog synthesizers can be taken. By the time of Analog Heaven eight years later, though, Preston’s work was not so groundbreaking. The tones on this seven-part suite are even more haywire, ominous, and neurotic than before. Perhaps thanks to improved synthesizer and recording technology, they are also cleaner, at times nearly crystalline. “Analog Heaven #1” is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”. It and the rest of Analog Heaven becomes less impressive, though, when you consider it was made two years after Pink Floyd’s synthesizer exposé.
Fred & Me goes back to a subterranean style, all minimal murk and clanging metal. Preston does not seem to have learned anything new on his synthesizers. By this point, too, Preston was being outpaced by experimental European “industrial” outfits like Einstürzende Neubauten, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, and Cabaret Voltaire.
It’s curious how, years later, young artists such as Aphex Twin took very similar analog synthesizers and a similar approach to Preston’s, yet ended up with something that sounded much more contemporary and much less murky. For electronic music historians or fans of abstract experimentalism, though, Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes is still a welcome if minor discovery.