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The project was the brainchild of Rocha and Michael Hutcherson, a Kansas City native and itinerant musician. Taking a cheesy-funky 1969 United Artists release called The Electric Indian as a conceptual jumping-off point, the duo set out to make an album that would reflect their appreciation of Native American culture and early electronic music — an experiment that Rocha envisioned as an "electric powwow."
Using the foundational elements provided by Rocha, Hutcherson pieced together the album over the course of 2011, completing the bulk of it in Berlin while on a break from touring with 4AD recording artist Twin Shadow. Along the way, he recruited a half-dozen musicians to take part, including Patrick Rocha, Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine) and George Lewis Jr. (Twin Shadow). The finished product is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of heady samples, fuzz guitar, Moog synths and polyrhythmic breaks — a stoner's holy grail that has been getting some blogosphere love.
To accompany the album, Rocha made a series of collages, placing Native American imagery into colorful, surrealist backgrounds. In one, a field of Tomahawk missiles is adorned with peace-pipe feathers. Another depicts a solemn American Indian chief with a blacked-out face wearing a drum machine around his neck. By combining pictures of tribes with images of weaponry, popular culture and outdated means of musical production, Rocha turns what might have been mere kitsch into an ambiguous commentary on American history. It's the type of progressive artistry that recently earned him a 2012 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Award, and Rocha credits the studio space and recognition provided by the Charlotte Street Foundation with helping him advance not just his visual art but also his musical pursuits in Symbol Heavy.
"Luke's getting the Charlotte Street award helped open up people's eyes to what we were doing and got them to check out all this stuff we have on the site for free," Patrick Rocha says. "It made us want to take Symbol Heavy to the next level."
For now, Rocha says, that includes making more videos and preparing a vinyl release of Electric Indian with a full-size booklet of the artwork. He hopes that the project catches on with audiences worldwide, of course, but he has no interest in abandoning Symbol Heavy's obscurity-celebrating, reality-bending mystique. There will always be hidden tracks, bonus materials and limited-edition releases — all delivered with a subtle wink.
"I want it to stay underground forever," Rocha says. "That's the truth."
Where to start with Symbol Heavy's intimidating discography? The Pitch queried some enthusiasts of the label about their favorite releases.
Beatbroker + Brother of Moses
The Forward Look EP
"Not Your Average"
"Delightfully straightforward, concisely executed hip-hop with socially conscious spitting and moody jazz loops. The bass line on 'Not Your Average' should be used by EMs in lieu of shock paddles. Most of the traits that I feel define Symbol Heavy - the combination of psychedelic art, DIY spirit, conscious thinking, collage, and archivist tendencies - are present in one form or another even on this very first missive."
Phil Torpey, former Pitch contributor
Topp Boom/Brother of Moses
"KC in the Ghetto" (single)
"It's always a pleasure to find something that captures what's fucked up, weird and delightful about the place you call home. Plus, the beat - sampled from the local soul group Trilogy's 1975 single on K-Town Records - has a sort of classic appeal."
Nathan Readey, Power & Light
SYMBOL HEAVY: Vol. 1
"They really started to flesh the crew out here, and the result is a sort of stylistic bridge between their different styles. 'Rain Check' is that rare beat that's hard as fuck yet so damn pretty. I usually like BGM's rapping about as much as I'd like to re-wire a socket while treading water, but it fits in perfectly with the oboe-funk line on '474-TIPS.' Plus, it's almost 40 tracks long. Who does that (except for maybe Dam Funk)?"
"I don't know how much of Boyd's work is sampled from VHS, but there's a quality to his slowed-down/hyper-compressed sound collages that feels warm and faded like public access. It's hardly mellow, however: Imagine Jonathan Bell hosting an episode of Soul Train. Manic voices fade in and out of repetitive grooves that hiss and blur like worn cassette tapes. You're nostalgically recalling your first auditory hallucination as a teenage breakdancer circa 1983. Shit is beautiful; shit is weird."
"Live recordings of electronic-music sets are often more filler than substance (ask anyone who has sat through more than one live Tangerine Dream recording). 'Options,' however, remains interesting and thoughtful throughout, recalling the ethereal synthesizer textures of electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani's 'Lixiviation.' You do forget what you're listening to after a while, but in the best way possible."
"Analog Apache" (single)
"If Symbol Heavy ever does blow up, this first single by Your Reflection could be the spark that lights the fuse. After some scrambled computer sounds, the song begins with a bold guitar line that could be the main theme to a psychedelic western. Pretty soon a keyboard line, tribal rhythm and jumpy melody creep in before it all converges in a full-blown freak-out around the minute and a half mark (at least that's how it felt watching the brilliant, disorienting music video)."