PRINT May 2009


Byron Kalet

Byron Kalet is founder of the Journal of Popular Noise, a Brooklyn-based audio magazine that will publish its Spring/Summer edition in June. Last month, the journal released Leisure Time, the debut EP from the Seattle-based post-rock duo Flexions.


    Based on a 2004 film adaptation of a book from 1990, NBC’s Friday Night Lights revolves around a high school football team in the small town of Dillon, Texas. The show is chock-full of pure Americana—football, BBQ, good Christians, pickup trucks, and fighting—and excels at cliché: The Dillon Panthers seem to win every game after finding themselves in the last minute of the fourth quarter, fourth down, with mere inches to go. FNL has a brilliance, however, that reveals itself through the writers’ nuance and astute subcultural awareness. In one scene from the second season, piteously dorky benchwarmer Landry Clarke (played by Jesse Plemons) discusses with a potential love interest ways in which his Christian metal band, Crucifictorious, differs from satanic and thrash-metal bands such as Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death—references that would likely fly over the heads of most cheerleaders and jocks.


    I used to describe Avenir as the typeface I had a crush on. When I was in design school, it was like that beautiful girl you’d see around everywhere but never got a chance to meet. My typography teacher, William Morrisey, finally made the introduction, and with his blessing I’ve been setting it ever since. Released by Linotype in 1988, Avenir was designed by Adrian Frutiger in an attempt to bridge the gap between geometric sans-serif typefaces like Futura (which I love) and more humanist Grotesk typefaces like Helvetica (which I hate). Idiosyncratic details, such as the two-story lowercase a and the Grotesk-style uppercase R, diverge from the perfect geometry of Futura, seen in lowercase letters such as o, b, p, and g—resulting in a terrifically readable face that can easily reflect the seriousness of a text while appearing friendly enough to be approached without apprehension.


    I first heard this band on a bootleg tape when I was about twelve, and it completely changed what I thought possible in music. Minor Threat’s sound has vibrant, aggressive fury that to this day I have not heard rivaled, although many have tried.

    Minor Threat performing live in Baltimore circa 1983.


    Long before the first wax cylinders were bought and sold, people made weird and beautiful graphics to package music. This is nowhere clearer than on the amazing engraved and letterpress-printed title pages from a collection of mid-nineteenth-century sheet music I found a few years ago in a thrift store outside Seattle. The music is all standard pop from the era—polkas and waltzes—but the typography is absolutely staggering. Each line is a different display type more ridiculous than the last: Half are absurd decorative titles; a few are weird, geometric, condensed sans-serif faces; and the rest is hand-engraved script. During the mid-1800s a variety of display typefaces became commercially available for the first time, and, as evidenced here, printers went berserk.

    Title page for the score of “The Dismal Swamp Quartette” composed by Bernard B. Covert and arranged for the Amphions of the Empire State by Professor T. Wood (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1852). Title page for the score of “The Dismal Swamp Quartette” composed by Bernard B. Covert and arranged for the Amphions of the Empire State by Professor T. Wood (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1852).

    London’s New Rave electronica duo Simian Mobile Disco are great, but their live performances, with seizure-inducing light shows orchestrated by David Cohen of Sauce Design, are the real treat. Surrounding Jas and James onstage are giant, ultrabright LED arrays, in addition to various other strobes, moving lights, and who knows what else they brought along for the ride. Seamlessly synced to the music, the tasteful shifts in motion, color, and rhythm in Cohen’s light shows magnify exponentially the entrancing energy of SMD’s set.

    Simian Mobile Disco performing live at Studio B in Brooklyn, 2007.

  6. TRON (1982)

    Disney’s classic hacker fantasy has long been an obsession of mine. Considered a milestone in the field of computer graphics, the film, whose sequel is slated for a 2011 release, still stands up today as a visually stunning piece of work. Surprisingly, there are only about fifteen minutes of actual computer-generated animation throughout the entire movie (although some 200 of the film’s still backgrounds were created digitally). The rest of the visual effects are a combination of traditional cel animation, styled to look like computer graphics, and an experimental technique incorporating backlit animation that was so expensive and time-consuming it hasn’t been used in a feature film since.

    Steven Lisberger, Tron, 1982. (Trailer.)


    Hipgnosis is the design team responsible for some of my favorite album artwork ever: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Ummagumma, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, and T.Rex’s Electric Warrior, to name some better-known examples from their vast catalogue of iconic work. When Hipgnosis was founded in 1968 by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, much of pop music’s visual landscape was cluttered with illustrative psychedelia. (Ornate and visually dense, this style drew influence from art of the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau.) Hipgnosis set themselves apart by employing photomontage and the latest techniques in retouching to create slick, surreal imagery with such a refined sense of craft that they could get away with creating pieces that completely disregarded the content of the records they were packaging.


    Wolfgang Riechmann is an unsung hero of ’70s German prog and Krautrock, and his only solo album, 1978’s Wunderbar, sports one of the best covers of the genre. The musician’s chilly, robotic head shot—he sports whitened hair and skin, black eyeliner, and blue lipstick—is set against a backdrop of microscopic ice crystals, evoking the dark, cold alienation of his meandering electronic compositions. Like the members of Kraftwerk—whose seminal The Man-Machine was released the same year—Riechmann reimagined himself as an inhuman compatriot of the electronic devices he used to compose. Unfortunately, he was never able to see his masterpiece enjoyed: He was stabbed to death in Düsseldorf just before the record was released.

    Cover of Wolfgang Riechmann’s Wunderbar (Skyclad, 1978). Cover of Wolfgang Riechmann’s Wunderbar (Skyclad, 1978).

    Seeking to create a sans-serif modern-style typeface with the readability of serifed classic and humanist faces, designer Hermann Zapf devised the “implied serif.” Used for his 1958 typeface Optima, this subtle concave shape at the end of each letterform has the effect of significantly improving legibility while granting the face a strange appeal. Inexplicably, Optima has been relegated mainly to the design of beauty products and pharmaceuticals.


    For anyone who wants to build a synthesizer but has no knowledge of electronic engineering and is totally broke, this thing rules. The Philips NE555 integrated circuit was designed to be a versatile component; one of its jobs is to turn a flow of electricity on and off at a consistent frequency. With the help of some easy-to-Google directions and a handful of parts from RadioShack, that on-and-off pulse can be sped up. Connect the rigged circuit to a speaker and you’ve got a monophonic pulse-width modulation oscillator for about five dollars. Sick!