An Aquarium Drunkard Guide to Jewelled Antler

The name Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson bestowed on their fledgling CD-R label was intentionally totemic. Jewelled Antler. It sounded like something worshipped, an icon from some long-forgotten religion. The block print logo they emblazoned on their small batch releases all but confirmed it: an illuminated stag horn enshrined upon an altar. It might have been cribbed from ice age wall paintings in the caves of Lascaux. And inside was a music strange and wonderful. Sunkissed jangle-pop and caustic drone, Balkan melodies and lysergic folk songs, deep forest field recordings and lo-fi free improv. It was like a homemade Nonesuch Explorer series, chronicling the many musics of some alternate Earth. Or then again, maybe it was northern California all along.

The Jewelled Antler began life around 2000 as a CD-R label. But the name soon began to denote an entire scene of mostly Bay Area musicians, collaborating in various permutations under an array of different monikers. Before long, the scene had outstripped Chasse and Donaldson’s little label. Jewelled Antler bands and affiliates began releasing albums on some of the more adventurous indies. This, at the very least, made their music dramatically less scarce than those original runs of fifty or hundred homemade CD-Rs, which tended to disappear instantly. Enthusiastic boosters like The Wire and Aquarius Records began to refer to the extended family of bands and projects as a “collective,” which perhaps reinforced the cultic overtones. But the term was never quite right. So much of the music was occasional and one-off: a hike in the Marin Headlands, an afternoon in Golden Gate Park, a field recording of the birds around Fort Cronkhite. Chasse once likened Jewelled Antler music-making to a picnic. “Collective” always sounded more like an armed compound than a ramble in the woods.

But the idea of a Jewelled Antler collective perhaps suited what Glenn Donaldson has called the “myth-making” aspect of the entire project. A core of perhaps four to six people, with maybe another half dozen or so friends and collaborators released music under more than twenty different band names. And the names virtually slurred into one another: The Birdtree, The Ivytree, The Famous Boating Party, The Floating Birthday Children, Of, Ov, The Blithe Sons, The Blithe Sons & Daughters. Donaldson calls them “instant bands.” They didn’t so much designate a working musical ensemble as capture a moment in time. It would be like bestowing a title upon a hike or a picnic. Even as more stable and enduring musical identities emerged, the edges demarcating one project from another remained hazy. This was all by design. Emerging in the final years of the irony-poisoned 1990s, the Jewelled Antler self-consciously pursued something like re-enchantment. “There is a lot of mystery to be found in the California coast,” Donaldson told me, “and we wanted to experience something magical.”

And there was indeed some extraordinary magic in the music Jewelled Antler produced in the early years of the twenty-first century. As the United States lost its collective mind in the months and years after the September 11 attacks, Jewelled Antler appeared as emissaries from a different America: slower and stranger and momentarily at peace with the world.  

The music of Jewelled Antler has been slowly resurfacing of late in reissues and rarities compilations and, increasingly, on Bandcamp. Moreover, veterans of the scene have continued to make original and challenging music. Glenn Donaldson has already put out two of the best records of the spring: the new one by his wistful jangle-pop outfit, The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Uncommon Weather; and his collaboration with Jeremy Earl of Woods under the name Painted Shrines. Donovan Quinn, Donaldson’s bandmate from The Skygreen Leopards—probably the JA’s longest lived outfit—has just put out an another outstanding album from New Bums, his mordant folk duo with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance. And Steven R. Smith continues to document the troubled sleep of old world empires, most recently in the excellent two parts of Ulaan Janthina, which both appeared in late 2020. Jewelled Antler was obviously only one chapter in the careers of the extraordinary artists and musicians who came through it, but it was a vital and mysterious one—one that bears revisiting. | b sirota

Thuja, The Deer Lay Down Their Bones (tUMULt, 1999): Virtually all roads in Jewelled Antler run through Thuja. Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson originally founded the label with an eye toward releasing material by the quartet they had just formed with Steven R. Smith and Rob Reger. And virtually every project in the broader scene shared at least one member with this core ensemble. Named for the great red cedars of the Pacific northwest, Thuja inaugurated much of the mythos of the Jewelled Antler. Appropriately, they borrowed the name of their astonishing debut from California writer Robinson Jeffers’ poem about encountering the decaying remains of a deer in a mountain clearing. The Deer Lay Down Their Bones would be the most conventionally musical of Thuja’s releases. Though the tracks (as on all Thuja albums) were mysteriously untitled, the instrumentation was still mostly recognizable and at least the skeleton of song structures was discernible in the haze.  Indeed, the percussive rumble and angular electric guitars on the opening track are not that far removed from the dark space rock of Smith and Donaldson’s previous outfit Mirza. And quiet found-object clatter merely accents Reger’s mournful piano lines, which often dominated the songs. Here they were mostly still a rock band. But the seeds of what Thuja would become were already present on The Deer Lay Down Their Bones: little interchanges and melodic fragments evolving into droning ceremonial. Thuja were arguably the most ‘indoor’ of the Jewelled Antler bands, their work retaining a scrape and electricity that sounded vaguely industrial. But the vast wilderness beyond seeped into their sound, like nature reclaiming an abandoned building. The appearance of The Deer Lay Down Their Bones at the end of the twentieth century (and not long after, that of Jackie-O Motherfucker’s Fig. 5 and Pelt’s Ayahuasca) signaled a sea change in the American musical underground.

The Knit Separates, Swords, Then Diamonds (3 Acre Floor, 1999): It is hard to think of the dramatically less prolific Knit Separates exercising a gravitational pull over the Jewelled Antler scene equal to that of the mighty Thuja. But Glenn Donaldson’s other pre-JA outfit, formed with former Social Unrest vocalist Jason Honea, occupied a vital star in the constellation. For while Thuja channeled the global drone of the Dead C and AMM, Donaldson and Honea’s Knit Separates drew on British jangle-pop and lo-fi psychedelia. The Separates balanced Thuja’s solemnity with the off-kilter whimsy of the Television Personalities and the Cleaners from Venus. Honea was a veteran of the Bay Area hardcore scene, but as Donaldson has recently said, “he’s always secretly wanted to be in the Smiths.” As Knit Separates, Honea and Donaldson put out two wonderfully cracked nuggets of C86-ish bedroom indie pop. Of their two albums, Swords, Then Diamonds was by far the weirder and more consistently surprising. Honea’s breathy, crooning songs are mostly poetic fragments, dragooned into catchiness by Donaldson’s latent pop instincts. But the woozy synthesizers and the primitive psychedelia of Donaldson’s guitar lines keep everything endearingly off-balance. Listen to the way the drums crack on “The U-Boat Graveyards of Neptune.” And you could mistake “X-mas Day Rainbow” for lost Guided by Voices. But it’s the excellent “Day Fuel Killer w/ Dumb Dream” with its salvation hopes of a “bright crown waiting” that stays with you. The Knit Separates were the prospect that all the noise and forest hum of the Jewelled Antler might be reborn as twee.

The Birdtree, Orchards & Caravans (Jewelled Antler, 2001): Glenn Donaldson’s lone solo record as The Birdtree, Orchards & Caravans, makes you wish the information age had never come. And then you might happen upon the impossibly lush forest tableau on the album’s cover in a charity shop or a yard sale and have little way of knowing what it was or where it came from. In that simpler world, Orchards & Caravans might be re-discovered as a lost acid-folk gem. Even in our world, it practically is. (It was reissued by Last Visible Dog in 2003, but even that one is hard to come by.) On Orchards, Donaldson uses guitar, banjo, bouzouki, harmonium, bells, drums, Wurlitzer, toy accordion and his own Richard Youngs-esque croon to conjure a thick psychedelic humidity. But those atmospherics only color Donaldson’s songcraft and keen melodic instincts; they do not conceal them. Folk ditties like “Red Midnight Raven” and “Everyone of Us A New Leaf,” are practically catchy. “The Lost Sun” might have been a Galaxie 500 outtake. Donaldson even stakes an explicit claim to the British folk tradition with a haunted rendering of “Mary Ann,” a tune with roots in the eighteenth century. Here, Donaldson the troubadour emerges from the forest discord.  

Steven R. Smith, Kohl (Jewelled Antler, 2002): The solo career of guitarist and composer Steven R. Smith appears somewhat off to the side. His mid-90s masterpieces, Gehenna Belvedere and Autumn is the End, appeared long before Jewelled Antler and forged a template of densely cinematic guitar études to which he adheres to this day. But the engrossing Kohl did appear on the JA label and shared some of the scene’s DIY primitivism. Kohl is a collection of nine solo guitar pieces, acoustic and electric, largely improvised on the spot and recorded with virtually no overdubbing. Far removed from the neo-Takoma school emerging around this time, Smith’s guitar is thick and slashing and resonant with reverb. But he is among the most narrative of American guitarists; his works have an almost storytelling quality, which wordlessly convey place and drama.  His music owes more to Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker than Fahey or Basho. Taking its name from an ancient cosmetic (the thick eyeblack ancient Egyptians wore), Kohl is all about painting and shading—the spare light and darkness depicted on the album cover. The apocalyptic acoustic of “Tent-pegging” is the stand-out here and ranks with the most thrilling moments in Smith’s entire catalog. But his gunslinger take on the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Odwalla” is also not to be missed. Like Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack from a few years earlier, the spare but richly imagined Kohl tracks a shadowed American wilderness.

 The Franciscan Hobbies, Masks & Meanings (Soft Abuse, 2003): The band name, The Franciscan Hobbies, sounds monkish but was actually lifted from a long-lived craft and model shop not far from the City College of San Francisco. The puckish combination of prayer and play captured something of the essence of Jewelled Antler. On their third album Masks & Meanings, Donaldson, Chasse, Reger, along with Greg Bianchini, Kerry McLaughlin, Buffy Vice Sick and Christine Boepple made a kind of rustic new age music. Lovely, and often spiderweb-delicate, but never wholly innocuous. Sounds proceed on Masks & Meanings in little, Morton Feldman-esque clusters: bowed bouzouki and plucked oud, gong and windchime and pennywhistle and bells. Sometimes faint guitar strum guides the way. The standout here is the gorgeous, eight-minute, “Wasp Embodiment,” which might be Windham Hill for the psilocybin set. And the long, serpentine “Apprehension of Reality,” with its interlaced guitars and bowed instruments and flutes, has the cinematic quality of post-rock, soundtracking films that don’t exist. There’s a discreteness and clarity to the music the Hobbies made, with just enough space between the sounds, that often stood in marked contrast to the lugubrious warehouse intonations of Thuja. Everything can breathe here.

Hala Strana, Hala Strana (Emperor Jones, 2003): The first World War began in the Balkans at the crossroads of three empires: the Austro-Hungarian empire, Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Turks. The Great War ushered all three of them into their graves. The series of recordings Steven R. Smith released under the name Hala Strana (“salt beach” in Bulgarian) move through these lands like a mourner. Smith’s knowledge of these cultures is unabashedly second-hand, lovingly pieced together from old LPs in the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, Marc Chagall paintings, the films of Sergei Parajanov, the Edison cylinder field recordings of Béla Bartók. But if Hala Strana is not really trying to convince you of its authenticity, it never amounts to mere pastiche. On Hala Strana, Smith uses an array of instruments old world and new (guitar, cello, harmonium, optigan, accordion, melodica, glockenspiel, et al.) to put new flesh on the bones of folk melodies from central and eastern Europe. The results are never less than jaw-dropping. Like his work under his own name, Smith’s Hala Strana tracks are vividly cinematic, streaked with color by his slashing guitar. But here he conjures the interstices of crumbling empires, slumbering villages, the shadow of modernity looming over the traditional world. Compare the scratchy Slavic folk dance of “Stouthrief” to the electrical storm of “Alate” or the grand imperial processional of “Millstones.” The sawing urban lamentation “Streets of Raised Platforms” almost pines for the old ways amidst the perils and temptations of the new city landscape. The four albums (plus a few singles and EPs) Smith recorded as Hala Strana between 2003 and 2007 together comprised one of the most compelling musical projects of the early twenty-first century. Like almost nothing else recorded that decade, they ask us to consider the presence of the past.  

Of, The Buried Stream (Jewelled Antler, 2004): Sound artist and teacher Loren Chasse once mused about “releasing a piece of log with lichen on it” as an album. It was a joke, but a telling one. Chasse’s work, especially under his Of (and later, Ov) moniker, revolves around playing the found world as an instrument. He once described his art as a search for “acoustical situations,” often around the frontiers where the built environment dramatically gives way to the natural one. Sometimes this amounts to an aural observation, like his “Green Laughter” on The Jewelled Antler Library, which documents the choir of frogs, birds and crickets and cicadas on a summer pond. But, more often, Chasse enlists his natural surroundings as an accompanist, playing alongside and through the tumbling brooks and the wind in the switchgrass. The Buried Stream is arguably the finest Of record, in which the human instrumentation phases imperceptibly in and out of the field recordings. The immense, expanding John Luther Adams-like tones of the long opener, “Underground Clouds” unfold and change color, before passing over into the deep cavern percussion of “The Jut of Rock.” The gongs and bells of the chiming “Mud Vowels” make a ghostly American gamelan. Though the sources of sounds on The Buried Stream are not always apparent, they are seldom unfamiliar. Chasse renders his drones and sonic juxtapositions tangible, rather than abstract, rooted in a sense of place. These are acoustical situations we might once have found ourselves in.

The Skygreen Leopards, One Thousand Bird Ceremony (Soft Abuse, 2004): To hear Glenn Donaldson tell it, the Skygreen Leopards was conceived as a holiday from the ambient weirdness of the world of Jewelled Antler.  He found his collaborator Donovan Quinn (then of Verdure) through a Craigslist ad and a shared love of West Coast flower power folk-pop like the Monkees and the Byrds. “We want to make pop music, inspired by the AM radio psych pop [and] folk of yore,” Donaldson said of the Skygreen Leopards in 2005, “but we can’t help but make it a bit strange, because we are a bit strange.” And true to form, the Leopards’ third album One Thousand Bird Ceremony commences with the windchimes and barnyard noises recorded outside the window of the ranch where Quinn was then living, just before the druggy thrum of “Summer Alchemy” comes in. But it is those irrepressible pop aspirations that make the Skygreen Leopards among the best-loved bands of the Jewelled Antler scene. Like Beard of Stars-era Tyrannosaurus Rex, they were pushing against the limits of the acid folk idiom. And if the Leopards were not destined for glam sex god superstardom, One Thousand Bird Ceremony begins their run of exquisite, sunshine psych-folk classics. Quinn and Donaldson trade off vocals. And the harmonies here (almost “a second song within the main song,” as Donaldson once described it) on strummers like “Walk With the Golden Cross” are lush and inviting. The killer “Tambourine, Play It Slow,” revs up the languid melodies with a bluegrass stomp. And the haunting “Parallel Shadows,” with its delicately intertwined voice and flute and bowed banjo, unveils the hidden complexity of their intimate songs. The Skygreen Leopards would go on to make tighter, more refined albums, but One Thousand Ceremony was where it first coalesced into something extraordinary.

The Ways of God to Man, As Far As Anything, Nothing (Root Don Lonie for Cash, 2004): In many ways, the Jewelled Antler label represented a last burst of craftsmanship in the physical packaging of digital music before the entire infrastructure of music distribution moved online. The album art and sleeves of their CD-Rs were lovingly and painstakingly made—in numbers small enough to render them precious and sought after. But the crown jewel of the Antler, so to speak, was the run of ultra-rare and hilariously impractical 3” mini-CDs released on a monthly basis throughout 2003. The series featured scene mainstays like Thuja and Hala Strana alongside global kindred like Finland’s Kemialliset Ystävät and Uton and New Zealand’s Claypipe. Ironically, the only way most people ever got access to these releases was through file-sharing networks like SoulSeek. So, in 2008, Porter Records compiled them all onto a 4CD box set called The Jewelled Antler Library. The Library included a bonus thirteenth release by a group which had swiped its name from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Ways of God to Man. The Ways of God to Man was Christine Boepple, Kerry McLaughlin, Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse. Their EP As Far As Anything, Nothing had originally appeared in an infinitesimal run on Clayton Noone’s New Zealand label Root Don Lonie for Cash. As Far As Anything, Nothing doesn’t really sound like anything else in the Jewelled Antler universe. It is a shambolic, trance-rock monster of a record that belongs in the company of weirdo classics like Peter Green’s The End of the Game, Bruce Palmer’s The Cycle is Complete and the insane discography of Source Family cult band Ya Ho Wha 13.  A thunderously percussive record of spectral chants and bad trip guitars, this works as a palette cleanser for the pastoral psychedelia that often defined the scene. This is where you lose your shit.

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