Joy and Loss: The Work of the Azusa Plane

by Matthew Kinlin

What if you had dedicated your life to making music only to find yourself losing your hearing? It seems hard to imagine the suffering that would arise from this situation, to continue living in a world that once was a source of joy and creativity but then had exiled you into a silent and helpless place.

This was the dilemma facing Jason DiEmilio, a Philadelphia-based experimental musician who after years of recording and performing drone-rock music under the alias of the Azusa Plane, tragically found himself losing his ability to hear.

As founder and permanent member of the Azusa Plane project, DiEmilio used a Fender guitar and effect pedals to create experimental guitar-led music, ranging from ambient, drifting guitar-based drone to harsher, more experimental music that incorporated digital noise.

The music of DiEmilio was indebted to the space rock of Spaceman 3 and the Xpressway label but he cited his music heroes as the Velvet Underground, the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian and a wide range of psychedelic bands. In DiEmilio’s own words, the ethos of the project was: “You can just have an electric guitar and you can create worlds, individual worlds, distinct ones. And I’m going to take you there.”

However, DiEmilio suffered from a condition known as tinnitus and hypercusis, which had been brought on by extreme exposure to loud noise, caused by playing with bands for most of his life without any protection for his ears.  The nerve damage in ear was too severe to be resolved and became progressively acute.  Faced with being cut off from the artistic world from which he took so much joy, DiEmilio took his own life in late 2006.

In his lifetime, he released three full-length studio LPs, a collection of live recordings, several EPs and a large amount of singles and compilation contributions released between 1995 and 2001 that can be found on cassettes, compilations and mixtapes all across the globe.

This year saw Rocket Girl Record label release a retrospective compilation called Where the Sands Turn to Gold, which is an anthology of previously unreleased tracks and live material from the Azusa Plane. The release celebrates the work of an unsung hero of experimental music that always found intriguing ways to approach and explore sound.

The record can be experienced in two ways. It can be seen as a collection of joyful experimentations from an inquisitive mind. However, the knowledge of DiEmilio’s fate also fills the record with a cathartic sense of loss and makes these explorations even more affecting.

The material found on Where the Sands Turn to Gold pays homage to the exploratory nature of DiEmilio’s work, which always saw him venture outside his own comfort zone. It also shows how indebted contemporary artists are to his experimental approach.

“Ode to the Mountain Goats” floats on an upbeat guitar riff and creates a sound that contemporary artists such as Ulrich Schnauss are indebted to. However, the track is then hijacked by a distorted guitar rising further and further up, highlighting the experimental tendencies of DiEmilio.

The wonderfully titled “Shooting Speed with Lou Reed” rides along on a blissed out, psychedelic rock drone that sounds spaced yet intense. The faint, sitar-like sound reminds of psychedelic rock and the track feels infused with an Eastern quality.

The eleven-minute “Cheltenham 2” is one of the darkest moments on the release, moving along on a simple guitar riff before splintering off into number of different guitar riffs all running at different speeds, layered on top of each other. It creates an unnerving effect that demonstrates the ability of DiEmilio’s music to disturb and unsettle.

The highlight of the album comes with the gut-wrenchingly touching “Every Wave Has Its Own Integrity”, which uses soft pads of drone and a melancholic guitar riff. It reminds of Cocteau Twins, in the delicate balance it treads between sadness and joy. As throughout the album, it is a moment that is imbued with a sense of fragile humanity, especially when placed within the context of DiEmilio’s life.

However the tragic narrative of DiEmilio’s last days should not overshadow his courageous and experimental music, which is attracting curious listeners from a contemporary audience. Jason DiEmilio dedicated his life to his music, and as Where the Sands Turn to Gold demonstrates, this is what he deserves to and will be remembered for.

For info on the release go to

Music Article by Matthew Kinlin


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