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Slippery When Wzt

Wzt Hearts Attempt To Find The Beauty In Harshness—And Vice Versa


Jefferson Jackson Steele
WZT HEARTS’ AMERICAN DRUMMER: Shaun Flynn (second from right) pounds the skins alongside bandmates (from left) Mike Haleta, Jason Urick, and Jeff Donaldson.

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Wzt Hearts

By Michael Crumsho | Posted 1/11/2006

“The world is our sound source and Jimmy Buffett sells us our microphones,” says Mike Haleta, the self-described “commuting member” (he now resides in New Jersey) of Baltimore quartet Wzt Hearts. It’s a strange comment from the former French Mistake member and current laptop wrangler, but also telling. The music of Wzt Hearts is definitely wide open, alternately conjuring images of noise gristle, free-jazz wallop, psychedelic expansiveness, and the intellectual curiosity of modern composition. Formed in early 2004 at the behest of former Cutter/Hammer drummer Shaun Flynn, Wzt Hearts have played extensively throughout Baltimore, often supporting such high-profile names as Pita, Gang Gang Dance, Lungfish, and Sightings. But with the imminent release of their still untitled debut album, the group is eager to establish its own niche.

“For me, it was an experiment to try and extend the realm of improvisation I had been already involved in,” Flynn says of the band’s beginnings. “Wzt Hearts originated with me propositioning two musicians and friends of mine, Jason [Urick] and Jeff [Donaldson], to try something in Baltimore with more experimental instrumentation, hoping for a more abrasive, volatile, and potentially gorgeous new sound. I was sure . . . that Wzt Hearts would at least be a good forum for finding the most expansive results between us.”

He wasn’t kidding. The debut erupts abrasively, as Flynn’s polyrhythmic blurts go toe to toe with distortion and cracked electronics. But before your ears can adjust, genteel guitar lines cascade through and the pace becomes more pensive, the tones stretched and luminous. “One of our original aims was to layer as many different sonic concepts together and then knock them all down,” Haleta says. “Each fall is different from the last, sort of like a live loop of many different colors, shapes, and textures, but completely mangled.”

Producer Rob Girardi helped capture the debut’s five untitled tracks straight to DAT at Big Crunch Studio in Catonsville. True to form, the four members of Wzt Hearts simply showed up, plugged in, and cranked it out for a few hours, editing and mixing down the best parts of their session. All live, the album captures the extremities of the band’s sound, from in-depth explorations of scraggly distortion to drone mentalism to guitar sunbursts. With two extended takes bookending the album’s trio of more succinct pieces, Wzt Hearts’ debut shows a quartet exploring the limits of its sound. Although Wzt Hearts are not specifically beholden to the winsome lysergics of the Animal Collective, the monolithic roar of Wolf Eyes, or the cerebral academic tabletop guitar experimentalism of Keith Rowe—all musicians they have played with—the album effortlessly segues from harsh digital dissonance to spare guitar ripples and sweet melodic ambiance, all supported by Flynn’s percussion.

“I like to think our band sounds the way we do because we are all into so much music,” says resident laptopper Jason Urick, who also owns the North Charles Street record store Once.Twice:Sound. “And I think it’s sort of a natural place for music to go these days because access to disparate genres is so easy now. So you have bands who are really exciting because they sound like nothing and everything I’ve heard at the same time.”

The band rarely practices (having rehearsed only three times to date), but the members’ innate communication skills lend their improvisations a fluent grace. Wzt Hearts’ sound sources are constantly in flux, more akin to a free exchange of ideas than a composed recital, allowing the members to test new shapes and sounds on the fly. “I had been honing new approaches to the guitar and had really begun to dig into electronics and modifications . . . so it seemed like an excellent outlet to try these new ideas,” guitarist and mixing-board maestro Jeff Donaldson says. “There was and has always been a strong sense of openness with this band. Throw out something and see if it sticks.”

The lack of traditional song structures and penchant for experimentation, however, doesn’t mean the band aims for a difficult, confrontational aesthetic. “We really are working to create something beautiful and not trite,” Urick maintains. “I, for one, am not into the idea of being abstract for the sake of itself. In my head we are making pretty accessible music.”

“The goal has never been to be the most experimentally ‘out’ project ever, as we certainly are not,” Flynn says. “In fact, we derive much satisfaction from combining so many elements of technique and instrumentation into an accessible yet complex force field of the harsh and pretty.”

While the four create music that sidles up to a variety of sounds, they bristle at the prospect of being haphazardly pigeonholed. “I think we ally ourselves with our friends,” Urick says. “But I don’t really like to consider us a noise band or a psychedelic band. I mean, truth be told, we’re probably as much of a jam band.”

“I think we’re pretty different from a lot of what is going around right now,” Donaldson says. “And I think that’s because we’re still figuring this thing called Wzt Hearts out.

“[Our music is] a conversation,” he concludes. “Sometimes we’re yelling. Sometimes we’re whispering. Sometimes we’re arguing. Sometimes we’re singing sweet nothings into each others’ ears.” When the full-length drops in the coming weeks—Baltimore label Hit-Dat releases the CD, while Washington/Atlanta imprint Hoss takes care of the vinyl—hopefully more people can eavesdrop on what Wzt Hearts have to say.

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