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The Industrial Electronic Music of Mental Anguish

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Mental Anguish is Chris Phinney, who has been recording indie electronics with a quirkily uptempo edge for decades.

One of the indie cassette culture vanguards, Phinney has become very active with the Tapegerms collective, in which a variety of modern indie bands post a selection of samples for use by other bands, allowing everybody to benefit from each other's expertise. These bands include: Adam Is God, Arthur Loves Plastic, Blind Mime Ensemble, Buzzsaw and the Shavings, Scott Carr, Cystem, DJ Get Yo Fat On, Ed Drury, Heuristics Inc., D.Howse, International Garbageman, Magical Cigarette, Hal McGee, Omnitechnomatrix, Shaud, Sideral, Bev Stanton, Virus Factory, and (of course) Mental Anguish. Phinney certainly makes superb use of this grab-bag of sounds, mixing things together to generate tunes of playful versatility.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Never Understand (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2004 offers 71 minutes of scathing electronic music.

This material relies heavily on the Tapegerms collective for source loops, resulting in a wide range of sounds.

Industrial aggression is keynote here, yet the medium is contemporary electronic music. Yet as the CD progresses, the tunes lose their overtly menacing demeanor and, while retaining their intensity, adopt a stringent skepticism regarding human society.

Hostile synthesizers generate a plethora of downright bloodthirsty sounds, which are taken and twisted into enthralling structures rich with melody. There are few (if any) background textures. A snake-pit of loops pummel the listener, producing a relentless flow of vigorous pulsations.

Rhythms contribute desperate undercurrents that do not propel the songs but instead function as auxiliary layers amid the noise. Okay, some of the pieces feature driving e-perc that elevates everything into a surging frenzy. And other times, the beats are submerged and erratic.

Vocals can be found (invariably sampled snippets of things), lending cryptic elucidation to the ambrosial bedlam.

These compositions are a bewitching dose of dark electronics laced with haunting riffs and fierce beats. Melody and rhythm feature prominently. For all the music's in-your-face character, it actually possesses an uncanny appeal.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Decadent & Weak (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2004 offers 72 minutes of industrial pop music.

Poppier influences creep into the hostile tuneage. There's even one piece that's full-out death metal.

The electronics are lusciously agro: harsh and biting. While loops spin with fierce fervor, keyboards provide additional riffs. Churning pulsations clash and fight for supremacy. Phinney's sonic palette is a bottomless reservoir of nastiness, sounds crafted in the underworld, sounds capable of shredding flesh. One song actually manages to use violin strains as a malicious weapon.

Heavy on the percussion, ranging from spooky e-perc to metallic impacts. The rhythms are hard and insistent, serious and razor-sharp.

A few tracks feature vocals--real vocals expressing lyrical crooning. Several of the other pieces employ spoken phrases as sonic emphasis.

There are a pair of tracks toward the end of the album that are utterly superb masterpieces of industrial pop displaying a mesmerizing groove.

While still rich with electronic intensity, these compositions explore rock motifs--pop, metal, industrial dance. Yet despite the music's severity, a sly sense of humor is present (as in the "Red Hots" track that glorifies hot dogs). This curious dichotomy ultimately bestows these gritty machine-age tunes with a subliminal sense of humanity.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Blowfly (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2005 offers 69 minutes of industrial pop music.

Fueled by Tapegerm loops, this music abounds with hyperactivity and barely restrained nastiness.

The electronics are generally less abrasive here, focusing on melodic slipperiness. Choppy chords generate a jumpy edgy quality that is almost techno in nature. Gurgling diodes flourish amid a churning pool of synthesized pitches. Cycles are established and unleashed like packs of hungry wolverines.

Percussion contributes a bevy of imperative rhythms, fast-paced and gritty. The beats adopt an attack mode and never seem to exhaust themselves. Even when the tempos are less frenzied, there's a distinct animosity contained in each impact.

Vocals are found in several tracks. The rich female crooning lends a darkwave disposition to the harsh tuneage.

These compositions harness hordes of agitation to produce entrancing pop tunes with an industrial edge. The melodies are bouncy, the beats are compulsive, the sentiments are sly and savage. Yet for all the antagonism, this music bristles with more engagement than malice, sucking in the listener with fascinating melodies that leave lasting impressions carved in the cortex.

This release features one Mental Anguish track remixed by Daniel Howse (the original track is also included), and remixes by Mental Anguish of two songs by Omnitechnomatrix. The album's final track is a long piece, dire and unearthly, mixed by Tapegerm guest Danile Prendiville.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Walking with the Alien (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2005 offers 70 minutes of menacing electronic music.

Overviews aside, let's look at this release track by track...

Track one: "Hurl" features a fuzz-popping bassline and quirky electronics and straight-ahead percussion with processed vocal effects. A growling guitar slides in to lend some teeth. Tasty hooks that draw you in; excellent starter piece.

Track two: "A Terrible Mistake" offers a plethora of George W samples and vocodered demonic and Third Reich lines, all spliced into a tense thread of shrill electronics that develops bouncy rhythms and cheery keyboards and evolves into an anthem of overcoming administrative oppression.

Track three: "Blister" has a lead-in of spooky voices and phase-shifted tonalities, then abruptly switches to a down-tempo funky mood with crisp e-perc and bent chords. The spooky vocal snippets creep back into the flow, and high-end notes start blooping and twinkling amid an ominous density.

Track four: "Cosmic Plains of Spain" (Tapegerm guest mix by Rafael Flores) offers sparkling chimes and chugging rhythms backed by an ascending drone that begins to wobble en route to a pleasant little pop ditty buried in a mire of emotionally-disturbed pulsations. Lurking way in the background, creepily distorted horns donŐt want you to notice their subliminal contribution.

Track five: "She Had Thighs the Size of Texas" has a moody opening with tortured horns sighing behind a recitation of the title, then erupts into a sprightly celebration of chugging oscillations and twisted e-perc tempos. The title chant reprises itself. The melody experiences an escalation of agitation. Auxiliary effects force themselves into the mix and ultimately the intro horns and growling overwhelm everything.

Track six: "10,000 Whispering, Nobody Listening" explores an industrial groove with electronic urgency and metallic beats. The tune takes a sideways turn, but retains its industrial disposition. The rhythms accrete nuances.

Track seven: "Well Run Dry" starts off dark and threatening, building drones and background snarls and discordant diodes into a pastiche of downright frightening evocation. And things get even darker.

Track eight: "Mamas Crawdad Cornbread" is chocked full of warped guitar-slides and mournful wails and snappy tempos and hyperspatial banjo(?) with a few Cajun touches. With each passing moment, the already-elevated intensity mounts.

Track nine: "Walking with the Green Alien" is a long piece (13 minutes) and tempers a conventional keyboard cycle with fierce pulsations that sound as if they're burning. Add in some drums and toss in a few auxiliary rhythms to keep things off-kilter. Something that could be an underwater guitar twangs every once in a while. Now we're walking hand-in-hand with the alien and things get weird with sidereal riffs going off like sonic fireworks along the path. Eventually the pace picks up (the alien's trotting along) and a new riff bullies its way into the mix. The newcomer riff is shrill and has an uplifting edge...leading to some Martian funk. Eventually the alien lifts off and floats away, leaving you with the final piece...

Track ten: "River of Blood" is as dire as it sounds. Moody textures, sinister violin, insectoid percussion--all arranged to instill a palpable dread in the listener.

On this release, Phinney augments his own loops with contributions by: Virus Factory, Electroearwig, Daniel Howse, Omnitechnomatrix, Ed Drury, Jeff Davis, Magical Cigarette, Heuristics Inc., Scott Carr, International Garbageman, Arthur Loves Plastic, and Buzzsaw.

This is an enjoyably weird one.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: That Big Old Eye in the Sky (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2005 offers 69 minutes of edgy electronic music.

Grinding electronics accompanied by revved-up e-perc, harnessed to create edgy tuneage for people who hate the way the world has gotten.

The electronics possess a vibrancy that stands in contrast to the music's gritty temperament. Shrill sounds are wrapped into compact loops that deliver meaty punches as they unfurl into mesmerizing melodies. While keyboards are used to craft these chords, there are also auxiliary effects lurking in the mix, going off like minor explosions as they contribute to the seething morass.

A full range of sounds are employed in these compositions, some crisp and almost sweet, others abrasive and malicious. Many of them are bizarre, slithering through the cracks like scavenging insects.

Percussion plays a vital role in this music. The beats are hard and harsh, conjuring compulsive rhythms designed for sultry locomotion. Sometimes non-impact sounds are cycled and utilized to provide songs with inventive tempos.

A few tracks feature sampled media snippets and various lyrics, and one piece has laughing children. Otherwise, the rest of the tunes are devoid of any vocals.

One track makes excessive use of violin sawing and canŐt seem to make up its mind whether it's at a hoedown or trying to summon Shiva.

These compositions exude a high industrial quotient, yet their structure betrays pop roots and an eccentric sensibility keyed to appeal to a dissatisfied populace. Even the instrumental pieces radiate a social discord; in fact one can definitely expect any of this music to horrify and bewilder the average person with their iPod full of candycoated pabulum.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Distant Warnings (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2005 offers 71 minutes of harsh electronic music.

Gritty electronics are supported by harsh rapid-fire e-perc, resulting in tuneage that is geared to flay flesh from the bones.

The electronics are a blend of coarse noises and congenial tones, combined in a manner that defuses both classes, yet boosts their cooperative demeanor. The softer amiable textures flow like an orderly canal, while the harsher sounds introduce fractures that threaten to flood the canal with the raging spillage of a burst dam.

Artificial percussion plays a vital part in this music, not just as a propulsive element but as an instrument on equal footing with the electronics. The rhythms are snappy and constant, complex and compelling.

Some vocal effects are present, but theyŐve been so severely treated as to become indecipherable. Their effect is more a mood thing, establishing a haunting uneasiness immersed in the musicŐs overall abrasive deportment. A few lecture snippets exist, lending scholarly mien to the abrasive pieces.

While flush with sonic aggression, these compositions strive to function as cautionary appraisals instead of hostile expressions. Social decay is reprimanded and exposed as threats to cultural stability. Granted, with no lyrical content, any "meanings" to these songs stems from the tunes' titles, but a certain disgruntled air is excellently conveyed by the music's churlish nature. There are some instances of snide humor in the melodies, but the listener definitely has the feeling that the jokes are deadly and the only ones laughing are the cockroaches who will gloat over mankindŐs toppled dominance.

All cultural implications aside, this music has a strong charm with its fluid nature. Phinney manages to combine abrasive aspects into a gestalt that is eminently enjoyable for those who aren't fundamentally timorous.

To be fair, not all the tracks are actively hostile. A few pieces smolder with dark ambience, grinding machines crooning to a blood-red moon amid a host of disturbing samples.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Red Eclipse (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2005 offers 71 minutes of bouncier dark electronic music.

While this music's mien retains a distinct industrial flavor, the tunes exhibit a more buoyant sensibility, casting off the terrifying intensity of earlier releases for a more carefree mode of expression.

Initially the electronics shine and glimmer, keys capturing a twinkling vivacity that traps a pop ethos in the midst of darker turbulence. Gritty tones provide a sobering balance, scraping ravines across the listener's cortex. As the album progresses, though, the electronics adopt a moodier temperament, unleashing harshness in equal ratio with weirdness.

Some tracks pursue a darker path, with haunting texturals laced with eerie effects.

Beats abound throughout the songs, hyper rhythms that are rich with an infectious allure. The percussion displays a well-rounded tincture, running the gamut from clangy metallics to more traditional arena rock drums.

Vocal snippets are employed here and there, comments by observers or orations by oblique scholars, that serve to give the impression of crowds of invisible people hiding in the mix. One song has actual lyrics, although they remain subtle.

In the last piece (which is also the title track) thereŐs a searing guitar presence--or a digital approximation of one.

These compositions are a tasty spread across types. There are bouncy industrial ditties, brooding ambience, scary soundtracks for dark rooms, even a fireside tribal ritual with ceremonial chanting. Grim sounds are applied to peppy models, resulting in tuneage whose appeal transcends boundaries between genres.

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MENTAL ANGUISH: Light Years Apart Lil Doggie (CDR on Harsh Reality Music)

This release from 2002 offers 76 minutes of frolicsome electronic music.

This album is a collection of Mental Anguish remixes of tracks by AutoCad, L.N.A., Magical Cigarette, Heuristics Inc., Darrel Brewer & Pull, Omnitechnomatrix, KO, and 3K Static. And some pieces are remixes of Mental Anguish songs.

The general mode is a dancebeat festival. Layers of quirky electronics and urgent percussion produce tuneage that turns out to be more industrial pop than techno.

The electronics are versatile, running the gamut from growling bass tones to squirrely noises to snickety outbursts to wobbly riffs. Riffs are established and then subjected to all kinds of sonic distress.

Percussion (both e-perc and conventional drums--at least they sound like convention drums) plays a vital role in these songs.

Guitars are also present, wailing away with rock sustains over more nimble-fingered chords. One track keeps switching from arena guitar licks to toy piano frolics, creating a highly amusing counterpoint between these emotional extremes. Some other pieces include bouncy horns.

As for vocals...well, some pieces have them, but the majority of times vocal content is buried in the mix. Sampled snippets are more predominant than vocals of a lyrical variety.

Representing tunes by a variety of bands, these compositions aren't easily codified into a single genre. There's synth pop, there's industrial, there's garage rock, there's a lot of varied material--but under Phinney's restructuring all of it becomes quirky and savagely uptempo. While a harshness is prevalent in the overall tone, a certain smirking humor comes through in these tracks.

An excellent example of the unpredictability of Phinney's tampering skills can be found in the last two tracks on the album, both of which are remixes of the same song by 3K Static. Yet neither piece sounds anything like the other: one is a buoyant jazzy excursion, while the other is a moody but spry take with a lot of dancefloor tonal sweeps.

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Mental Anguish is one of the bands who survive from the old cassette culture scene of the 1980s. Anyone interested in learning about the history of this underground music network is recommended to check out GRINDSTONE REDUX, a DVD documentary from 2009 (on True Age Media) that examines that phenomenon, including interviews and videos by many of the prominent figures in that scene.

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