by Mark Teppo

Many years ago, my father went into business for himself and moved the family to a place where the fishing was good. We would go out in his aluminum boat and float the rivers. I went along to help ground the boat, carry the worm bucket, stare in awe at the trout, and generally be underfoot--the important things that a son can do. One summer day while floating down the Gallatin river, I asked about his new spin-off company. "It's never been done before in the private sector," he said, reeling in his drowning worm. "There's a market for it."

"But," I asked, "once you do it, won't there be others?"

"Sure," he replied. "Nature of the business. Once you make an inroad, others follow."

"Aren't you worried about the competition? They might do it cheaper and faster."

He shrugged and threw his worm back out into the river. "Probably. But 'cheaper and faster' will be defined by my standard."

[ margaret fiedler and guy fixsen ]

Laika--the duo of Margaret Fiedler and Guy Fixsen--have only two albums, Silver Apples of the Moon from 1994, and Sounds of the Satellites from 1996. But they have set the standard which everyone else must reference. Slippery beats, warm dreamy vocals, and a thick collage of sound have become commonplace enough that you can't throw a worn LP without hitting another entry into this trip hop/drum 'n' bass/post-rock market. But it is the combination of Margaret's slinky voice, the duo's insistence on eclectic time signatures and polyrhythmic densities, and the echo of deep space in their music which sets Laika far away from the rest of the crowd.

Buried at the end of Sounds of the Satellite is a recording about the band's name. Laika was the first dog in space, packed away in the shell of Sputnik 2. The story goes that the Russian scientists had a monitor attached to the dog and were recording its heartbeat, able to hear that it was perfectly at rest while floating through space. One night, the anecdote goes, they heard something else, a repetitive pulse of sound that seemed like Morse Code and, when translated, said: "Bow Wow." Apparently it was a joke being played by someone with a strong radio transmitter in the South Pacific.It's that sensibility sums up the music of Laika: revolutionary and exploratory, yet still marked with a wicked sense of humor.

Take "44 Robbers." The first track unleashed on the listening public in 1994 on a Too Pure compilation is a slightly off-kilter rock song with its plink-plunk guitar and straightforward drum line. But it staggers quickly, adding the whoosh of electronic whistles to its rapid-fire pace. The song stops, starts again, loses instrumentation and scoops it back up once more. All the while, Margaret is crooning on about "44 robbers at her door." It's a seemingly nonsensical tune, wrapped around a tight, funky beat. It takes a moment for the subject matter to actually sink in. This is a woman who's afraid to leave her home because every man she meets has the same thing on his mind. "I've got my freedom, I've got my pride. All means nothin' with these men outside." So much for nonsensical.

Much of Laika's music appears to be stream of consciousness, both in the music and in the lyrical content. There is too much going on all the time, so many layers and rhythms all vying for your attention that it is hard to rise above the flood of information pulsing into your brain. I still feel like I am drowning sometimes when listening to Laika, still amazed that the chaos of the individual parts actually works so well when taken as a complete unit. It is a puzzle masterfully arranged, pieces pulled from six different boxes and meticulously fitted together into a seamless whole.

Both Margaret Fiedler and Guy Fixsen spent time in Moonshake, an aurally edgier contraption formed by David Callahan. Moonshake only put out one full album before Margaret left, taking her moody whispered melodies and the able production abilities of Guy with her. Moonshake was certainly part of the seminal early offerings of Too Pure, at a time when the label was garnering great press for its roster of talent. The band melded its great range of influences--from Can and Kraftwerk to the nascent sounds of jungle to dub reverberations and the whispered samples of the mechanical/industrial environment of the late 20th century. Margaret and Guy left behind the angry roar of Callahan's voice and the snarling guitar accompaniment to a quieter realm. Quieter, but not calmer.

"If You Miss" from Silver Apples begins with a thundering rumble of sampled percussion, boiling over the listener like twenty tons of snare drums falling off the back of a truck. A marimba melody catches them, works their furious rush of sound into a dreamy structure, and shifts the jarring tone of the song to a quieter space. "Jump at the sun and if you miss you can't help but grab some stars." The single lyric is looped, weaving around echoes of itself and the marimba until it becomes a lullaby. All the while four and twenty snares are keeping time in the background.

The duo, along with their key players--John Frenett on bass, Lou Ciccotelli on drums and percussion, and Louise Elliott on flute and saxophone--spent much of 1995 on the road, including a stint on Lollapalooza's second stage, before returning to the studio. They experimented awhile, letting slip single tracks to compilation appearances while refining their cataclysmic rush of melody and rhythm for their second release, Sounds of the Satellites.

"Prairie Dog" opens the album with a couple seconds of silence before a clatter of hardware and a shuffling drum beat, almost as if they weren't quite ready for the tape to start, yet went on anyway. It is a sly accident of noise that suddenly becomes a full-blown song, more robust and less complicated than anything from Silver Apples. They've honed their lyrical craft as well, tripping full sentences instead of rapid-fire streams of images and ideas. Yet the subversive darkness remains in the lyrics, much like "44 Robbers" previously. "Prairie now isn't that a pretty word, rolls off the tongue like a setting sun" becomes "Prairie now isn't that an evil word, trips on its feet like a slouching beast." And suddenly you know what that lurching cadence has been reminding you of.

[ silver apples ]

Oh hell, if I'm going to reference Yeats, I might as well work in Eliot too. "Breather" reminds me so much of the yellow fog from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock." The music gives life to Eliot's curling mist that rubs its back against the windowpanes and licks its tongue in the corners of the evening. There is even a loop of Margaret's breathing running through the song which sounds so much like the breath of late night steam grates.

There is more space existent in the songs from Satellite. These songs breathe with much more gravity, more paced regularity than the often frenetic pace of Silver Apples. Songs like "Breather" and "Almost Sleeping" are very reminiscent of "If You Miss" in their near lullaby approach; yet while "If You Miss" still had taut undertones to it, the songs on Satellite have a decidedly more poignant cast to them. There aren't as many layers of sound, yet the instrumentation and rhythms have been chosen with great care, building more rarified structures out of fewer materials.

Impossible to easily categorize, Laika isn't waiting for the rest of us to catch up to them. A report from the web says that they are nearly finished with their third album. Darker and funkier, the songs have been described as being a "Kraftwerky-percussion drive thing," an "accidental run-in between Bette Davis and Led Zeppelin," a "spacy loopy mantra song," and something made from "weird disembodied funk."

[ sounds of the satellites ]

There's more on that list, but why ruin it for everyone? I've glossed past a great many of the songs on both of the released albums as well. Not because they are inferior in any way to those mentioned, but rather to allow you to discover some of them on your own. Go. Discover Laika. Be thrilled, mesmerized, captivated. Discover the sound of the future now before the rest of the world stumbles onto the trail that Laika has blazed and dilutes their sound by cranking out "cheaper and faster" impersonations. Don't be caught off guard when records begin to be referenced as "Laika knock-offs." Be able to nod sagely and say: "Yes, nothing quite matches the original, does it?"

Antenna EP (Too Pure/UK, 1994)
Silver Apples of the Moon (Too Pure, UK/American, US 1994/1995)
Breather EP (Too Pure, UK 1996)
Sounds of the Satellites (Too Pure, UK/Warner Brothers, US 1996/1997)
Almost Sleeping EP (Too Pure/UK 1997)

On the web:
Laika Official Website
Laika Unofficial Home Page
Too Pure

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