Album Review: Whettman Chelmets – “Koppen” (Ambient/Drone/Noise)

Written by Kirk

Whettman ChelmetsKoppen
> Ambient/drone/noise
> Oklahoma, US
> Releasing July 7
> Strategic Tape Reserve

What do you know about noise rock? In the grand scheme of the wide world of heavy music, noise might be the most misunderstood, misrepresented, and underutilized style. In fact, I would go so far as to say noise rock is grossly undervalued in music as a whole. Its origins date back to the late ‘60s with the inception of the “experimental rock” movement and the rise of bands like The Velvet Underground, The Red Krayola, and Cromagnon (among many others). And, as many of us already know, these are bands that largely became popular after they hit their prime (or, in many cases, broke up), so noise rock has stayed very much under the radar.

Fast forward to the ‘80s. The heyday of progressive rock has come and gone, and dancing in its ashes is the punk rock movement. Bands like Flipper, Sonic Youth, and Big Black were toying not just with their instruments but the sounds their instruments could make. In the September-October 1984 issue of the Chicago music zine Matter, Steve Albini of Big Black said, “Anybody can play notes. There’s no trick. What is a trick and a good one is to make a guitar do things that don’t sound like a guitar at all. The point here is stretching the boundaries.” And stretch boundaries they did! To go even further, artists like Glenn Branca and James Chance and the Contortions fused punk or rock music with other disparate genres like jazz and funk (Chance) or classical music (Branca) to create an otherworldly sonic experience.

As the years progressed and the influence of noise rock expanded, so did the arsenal of tools with which to create these unsettling and abrasive sounds. The shoegaze movement gave rise to the proliferation of overburdened pedalboards and the “wall of sound” approach to music, drowning your audience in an ocean of feedback. And, as always seems to be the case, artists began to grow tired of experimenting with the seemingly limited array of sounds in rock music. That’s where artists like Whettman Chelmets come in, taking a page out of Glenn Branca’s playbook and acting not so much as the musician but as the composer (he doesn’t have an orchestra per se, but who has that kind of money in this economy?). I think it’s also fair to say that Whettman Chelmets is also similar to modern composers like Nils Frahm, producing lush, layered, and deeply textured sonic landscapes using whatever means are at his disposal (except guitars: “No guitars were used or harmed in the making of this recording.”).

On Koppen, Chelmets’s latest album and 21st release since The Properties of Water debuted in September 2013, he explores the concept of using the Köppen classification system that separates the planet into different climate regions. The song titles in Koppen are representative of the climate classifications utilized in the Köppen climate classification system, divided into five groups: A (tropical), B (arid), C (temperate), D (continental), and E (polar). Although Chelmets does utilize field recordings as part of his work, it seems more than a little far-fetched to assume he would have collected these recordings from each of the climate regions I mentioned. So, with that in mind, what are these 15 strange song titles supposed to represent? That, I think, is the question at the heart of Koppen: What do these song titles (and the songs themselves) mean to you, the audience?

When I listen to Koppen, I hear the complex tableau that is what we commonly refer to as “human emotion.” We live in a deeply volatile and unsettling world, one that can make you feel elation, sadness , fear, grief, and anger. All of these emotions can assault us within a single day—sometimes within a single hour—as we struggle to stay afloat amidst an ever-turbulent sea of information. What I hear in Koppen is that range of emotion—mapped by Chelmets the same way Köppen mapped climate regions —and turned into a swirling, pulsating, incendiary miasma of raw sound. Each new track draws you in and holds you captive, eliciting feelings of every color and every shade. Is this what it means to be a human being in modern times, to ride this emotional rollercoaster through every dip, turn, and loop until we shuffle off this mortal coil? Who’s to say? On the other hand, have you ever tried keeping a journal of your emotions on a daily basis? The results may surprise you, and Chelmets may be on to something here….


It may seem obvious to say this in a music review blog, but never underestimate the power of sound. Too often we, both as music fans and music critics, judge a song, an album, an artist, etc., on the skill with which the craft at hand has been executed. But it’s easy to lose sight of where the inspiration for that craft began. Prince is one of—if not the—greatest pop artists of the 20th century, and he was lauded for being able to craft a song out of something so simple as the sound of glass breaking. Inspiration comes in all kinds of forms, and what we commonly refer to as “music” takes a great many shapes. What makes the music of Whettman Chelmets so intriguing is the ways in which he weaves sounds together into music. The world of noise rock is vast, an oyster of experimentation just waiting to be shucked, and he is a man at the ready with his knife in hand. Because, for some, he quest is all about finding that perfect pearl, whereas for others, it’s about finding the differences in every pearl and appreciating them for their unique qualities.