Quinn A., an artist on the industrial label Chicago Research founded by Blake Karlson, is describing the recording process for the forthcoming EP by the group Civic Center, when things take an unexpected turn.
“Blake [Karlson] has a big collection of scrap metal,” Quinn says, “which is actually terrifying. It provides you with small cuts.”
As it turns out, that scrap metal collection turns up a few times across the label’s catalog. Which makes sense: Most of the label’s recordings are done family-style, and Karlson—and his scrap metal collection—are often in the room.
“Usually I don’t record the solo projects,” Karlson says. Instead, he’s tracked material from bands Bruised, Product KF, The Cell, and Civic Center. “The scrap metal shows up on the new Product KF record and a new solo tape I’m doing,” he says. “It comes out here and there.”
The use of scrap metal also reflects one of Chicago Research’s fundamental principles. The label, which was co-founded by Cesar Robles, is dedicated to the idea of taking what the city provides and reinterpreting it. Chicago Research is hardly the first industrial label from the city, but when asked whether they feel any affinity with Chicago’s rich history in the genre, the answer is a resounding no. “It’s pretty much impossible to relate to a label like Touch and Go or Wax Trax in 2019,” Karlson says. “Things are so different. We’re worlds apart at this point. Those were 30 years ago, in some distant land.” While Chicago Research respects and acknowledges the legacy of those independent institutions, they’re out to stake their own claim.
The first LP on Chicago Research also set the stage for future releases. CR001 features the grinding punk of Product KF, the cool synthpop of Death Valley, the aggressive post-punk of Bruised, the anxious, surreal soundscapes of Civic Center, and much more. In a concise but effective 20 minutes, this comp is designed to introduce listeners to the label’s major players.
“Stuntwoman” b/w “Wavelengths”
“She’s our pop superstar,” says Karlson, referring to Death Valley’s Ariel Motto. Unlike the labels other, more abrasive projects, Death Valley embrace melody: Motto’s voice is silky, cresting atop tight synth lines and crisp rhythms. It is undoubtedly the most pop-forward release on Chicago Research.
“Bruised have been around for a long time, probably five or six years,” says Robles, the band’s vocalist. In that time, Bruised have undergone multiple lineup changes. “I think there have been nine or so people in the band, and seven are on the record,” he continues. For all that change in personnel, Rotten Codex is tight, cohesive, and clear—the band’s trudging, relentless tempo and angular guitar work coalesce on short, hardcore-influenced bangers like “Psychic Stain” and “Throbbing Palm.” Between these adrenaline-driven numbers, Bruised combine synth-forward soundscapes with creepy spoken word, guitar, and field recordings, keeping the atmosphere tense while giving space to let the songs stand on their own. The title track is one such example, strategically placed before two final, short, memorable bulldozers.
Ways of Perfection
Ways of Perfection is a queasy collection of experimental industrial pieces that combine synthesizer, drum machine, and organic sources—such as Karlson’s scrap metal collection—as well as literal bells and whistles. The second track “We’ve Always Belonged Together” recalls a more miasmic number on the Liquid Sky soundtrack, a score characterized by its disorienting, deconstructed synthpop. The vocals are formless and gurgling; the fact that they’re set against such a regulated rhythm section makes the listening experience even more uneasy. Folks who like their electronic music a little more squirm-inducing will find a lot to love here.
Songs of the Groves
Product KF make music that’s an invigorating, haunting blend of post-punk and industrial. Featuring Robles, Karlson, and Macklin Reed, the trio boast dark, catchy songs, which sound like bizarro mash up of Total Control and Bauhaus. Songs of the Groves is the trio’s first vinyl LP, following two cassette-only releases, and captures the band reinterpreting earlier works like “Pitch-Dark,” brandishing more sophisticated songwriting on songs like album highlight “Day Comes Too Soon,” and even giving techno-influenced instrumentals like “Opticks” a whirl. A new peak for the band.
Even A Worm Will Turn
Nothing on Chicago Research sounds as menacing as Even A Worm Will Turn. It’s a rhythmic journey lit up with shrieks, affected samples, brooding synths, and jagged guitar. The album distorts classic songwriting—on “You Know What This Means,” Civic Center take the soft-loud-soft formula and add a disturbing, enjoyable chorus. The album also nods explicitly to the band’s home with a sample on “Freedom of Movement,” which will be recognizable to anyone who’s traveled Chicagoland’s public transit. “Clem from Civic Center had that CTA sample,” Karlson says. “There’s a conversation or monologue with an evangelist on the CTA. Some of the other people didn’t like the sample, but it’s still on there.”
On August 1, Chicago Research dropped five more tapes, including CR015, an eight-song comp hinting at the label’s next steps. The tape features five artists new to the roster (Glas, The Cell, Conjunto Primitivo, Oro, and Cold Storage) and three mainstays (The Arno, Death Valley, and Hen of the Woods). Accordingly, CR015 covers a lot of ground. The comp goes from Glas’ icy pop hit “Fever Dream” and Conjunto Primitivo’s “Bailando Primitivo,” a mix of techno and synthpop sung in Spanish, to noisier instrumental numbers from The Arno, Cold Storage, and Oro. “Keep an eye out for full-length releases from many of these artists in the near future,” says the release’s description. It’s clear that Chicago Research will continue to expand its palette.