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The Ice Age

Talking cold music with DJ Cullen Stalin and Matmos' Drew Daniel

Photo: Alex Fine, License: N/A

Alex Fine

The Ice Age

Debuts Dec. 17 at Club Phoenix.

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Even if you’ve never thought about it, organized your records, or tagged your MP3 files as such, you know what “cold music” is. No matter if you’ve never sought it out or even avoid it—especially if you avoid it—you know the tone of voice or synthesizer or guitar and its weird wave of not anger, antipathy, or even deadness, but icy removal. Not like a vacuum of empty space with no feelings or flesh, but like a machine moving around and observing a world full of those things. Cold music is like a cold person—and you know a cold person the second they enter the room.

“To me, coldness is an emotional state: the deliberate refusal of empathy,” writes Drew Daniel, Matmos member and likely Baltimore’s reigning expert on cold music, from a tour stop in Germany (which he assures us is currently very, very cold). “So even when feelings of hate or hostility are put forward in this music, they are not done in a kind of ‘hot’ state of anger (a la punk, hardcore, most metal), but instead this work takes a kind of clinical, detached, deliberate, and cruel stance. The vocalists in this music come on like the aristocrats in a text by de Sade.”

Naturally, Daniel is scheduled to be a guest at a new Baltimore DJ night called Ice Age, a monthly celebration of all things, well, cold music. Which sounds painfully vague in a listening world used to genre-labeled bins at the record store, format radio stations, whole venues of music designed around music that sounds similar (rock clubs, rap clubs, etc.).

Cold music in this discussion emerged as concept in 1979 or ’80, but didn’t make up a unified movement in the same way that, say, no wave or postpunk did. Throbbing Gristle (mangled, menacing) and Kas Product (superstylish, French proto-electropunk) probably didn’t pal around too much. Note that Ice Age’s debut is dedicated to recently passed Throbbing Gristle member Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.

A club night organized around a concept and not a genre or drink special is refreshing and interesting, as there are few local club nights that you could consider challenging. A concept is at least a step removed from beats and bass. One of Ice Age’s founders, Cullen Nawalkowsky (along with Fan Death Records’ Sean Gray and Washington, D.C.’s Denman), explains that for him the idea of a cold music night has been gestating for a very long time. “My first DJ gig ever was at a goth/industrial party,” Nawalkowsky says in a phone interview. “[I’ve wanted] to be able to go deeper into the rarer, more obscure sounds. I could never figure out a way to do it.

“I really like this venue, the Phoenix,” he continues. “And I thought this could be a place I could do this.”

Nawalkowsky, who DJs as Cullen Stalin, argues that right now is a perfect time for a celebration of this music, what with dread returning in full force as a dominant cultural sentiment. “[Cold music emerged during] the Cold War, where it seemed like there was imminent doom, [leading to] this detachment from contemporary society,” he says. “We’re in kind of similar times these days. The doom is different but there’s this feeling. Nihilism is a part of it, the inability to see beyond detachment.”

It’s hard to escape the notion that a cold music night is also the anti-club party, more reasonable by far than a night of harsh noise but, at the same time, often a weird tease of music that can mingle with pop but lacks pop’s abandon. Note the odd range of planned guest DJs: Daniel, Celebration’s Katrina Ford, and crusty west-side noisemaker Door.

Daniel explains cold music’s unique allure: “Sonically, it means: electronics that are harsh and sharp and more about the high-end than the low-end, vocals that are not about emotional display but about emotional shutdown, noises rather than riffs, repetition and stasis rather than development, music that doesn’t need to go anywhere because it’s already locked into place,” he writes. “Perversely, this kind of music can be weirdly thrilling because it does without most of the things that normal music needs: emotion and development.”

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