1983: Paris 1942 (Moe Tucker, Alan Bishop, Sir Richard Bishop)
I have cruel friends who like to play God Over Riboflavin; it’s their favorite pastime. They know my tastes as well as I do myself, and they like to withhold information from me, anticipating my reaction of equal parts enthusiasm and frustration. “Moe Tucker and the Bishops from Sun City Girls had a band once? They recorded an album? Why didn’t you tell me sooner, I know that you knew this all along! How long have we been friends again?!?
Before the stupid “Tea Party-gate,” before twee-immortalizations by way of “quirky” millennial movie soundtracks, before playing with the Kropotkins, and before the (un)necessary Velvet Underground reunion in the 90s, Moe Tucker joined up with Alan and Richard Bishop of Sun City Girls, as well as fellow AZ collaborators David Oliphant, Bennie Baresi, and Jesse Akkari, and made an album. It’s an amazing mixture of early SCG-experimentalism, Velvet-inspired bashing, and howling, immediacy captured by way of equipment prone to tape hiss, as well as a living illustration of the link between the two generations. From this band, SCG would form, and the evolution seems as much obvious as it does brilliant, like one of those moments when you predict the end of a film and still find yourself totally immersed.
Influence is strange; often we associate influence with what is immediately available, with what bits of similarities and languages are in the songs at first listen. Then there is that which comes more apparent over time. If one were to listen to SCG’s Dante’s Disneyland Inferno for the first time, I’d gamble that the first words out of the mouth of said listener wouldn’t be “Velvet Underground.” But listening to Paris 1942 next to Torch of the Mystics, there are definitely signs of what was and what became. Influence doesn’t always translate literally, and for the most part, for the better I’d argue. If we were to learn correctly from The Velvet Underground, it would be that form isn’t an adherence, and that the point is not to be rewriters, but rather translators. Somewhere along the way, they cover Syd Barrett’s “Long Gone,” and it too couldn’t feel more as close and as far away as possible from its source.
That being said, some of Paris 1942 feels very close to the source — “Move Out Of Wichita,” and “Pontious Pilote” specifically — but the album doesn’t play out like a form or genre exercise playbook. The more experimental tracks such as “Conversation,” or the songs that worked somewhere between the two, such as “Berlin Mood” or “Hex,” are easily as enjoyable as those closer to the VU heart, as well as making the two sides of the band (between form and experiment) more exciting.
Outside a few links on the internet, little has been said about Paris 1942, and besides the occasionally excited blogger, reception seems pretty negative. User “teenagegurls” from the terminalboredom.com message board calls it, “ready-made recipe for the worst music of all time.” Same forum, “panama fist” says, “add this to my ‘no one actually listens to’ category.” User “frankie teardrop” simply calls it “fag crap.” But it’s when “Whet Bull” says that Moe Tucker is “Velvet Underground’s LVP (Least Valuable Player)” that the sort of fear regarding lack of traditional rockist value is succinctly articulated. Tucker’s “career” (if it could even be called that) was by no means financially successful, but the scope of her influence seems to have had the most artistically interesting effect. Whereas Lou Reed and John Cale currently tread into their own forms of “adult contemporary,” somewhat trapped within their own constraints, Tucker grew out of her self-imposed limitations. On “Hex,” she plays a full kit, if just to show us that she could have played that way all along, but had the foresight and understanding to know what central force of the VU would be so identifiable. The 12-minute long “Headhunters” reinforces what can be found in every version of “Sister Ray” available: that Tucker could hear a song better than about anybody else, and could hold it together accordingly.
Her simplicity, matched with what would become the identifiable experimentation and instrumental work of Sun City Girls, is a sort of one-two punch at traditional garage rock tropes, striking the fear in “panama fists” and “teenagegurls” everywhere. Both sides of the Paris 1942 coin have been involved in work that is definitely more worthy of critical praise, but it’s amazing to see the brief moment in which these two converged. Escaping the easy designation of “super-group” by way of being relatively unknown at that point, it goes to show that those “fantasy bands” you form in your head while you’re really stoned may or may not have actually existed at one point.
1986: The Group - Live
In music, all-star games generally do pretty well. One thinks of concert recordings like The Quintet at Massey Hall in Toronto, 1953 (later issued on LP by Debut), where bebop masters Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus convened on stage. Or the various outfits billed later as Jazz at the Philharmonic or Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars, bringing notable artists and repertoire together as a surefire shot. In rock music, perhaps the result of bringing together known greats is a little more predictable, but the term ‘supergroup’ still applies, whether one is talking about Cream, Blind Faith, or June of ’44. But not every such all-star lineup is as storied — witness The Group, a band of first-, second-, and third-generation avant-garde jazz musicians who came together for a series of concerts in 1986 and 1987, the results of which went unreleased until Live came out late in 2012 on Lithuania’s No Business Records. It was never the intention for The Group to pass by recorded documentation; rather, as much as the 1980s were a time of increased visibility for jazz and improvising musicians, the home court of New York still pressed conservatism ahead of even the most populist branch of creative music.
The Group was a cooperative consisting of trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, violinist Billy Bang, alto saxophonist Marion Brown, bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Brown and Cyrille were the ensemble’s veterans, both having been on the scene since the early-to-mid-60s. Sirone (given name Norris Jones) was a few years younger but also came up in the post-Coltrane avant-garde. Fred Hopkins was a Chicagoan who relocated East alongside a number of his peers in the AACM, while Abdullah and Bang were veterans of the 1970s loft jazz scene. Only Abdullah and Cyrille are still living, but both continue to contribute much to modern music. Circa 1986, all six of these figures were vibrant and crucial voices in the varied landscape of jazz from inside to outside, keeping company with collectives like Old and New Dreams, The Leaders, and the World Saxophone Quartet.
Live was recorded September 13, 1986 at the Jazz Center of New York in lower Manhattan and consists of five compositions, two by members of The Group and three from the pens of Mingus, Miriam Makeba, and cornetist Butch Morris. Programmatically, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the works of architects Morris and Mingus are placed next to one another. The cornetist’s “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress” sets a gentle calypso lilt against massive, pliant dueling pizzicato basses and Cyrille’s detailed waltzing architecture. Bang’s violin is dervish-like and electric while kaleidoscopically phrased, and Brown’s alto is imbued with a warm, throaty simplicity. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ ode to Lester Young, begins with a “Wade in the Water”-like duet between Brown and Cyrille, a hushed blues oratory that spreads out into Abdullah’s burred vocalizing and plunged wow, spurring his comrades towards incisive soli and a particularly rousing bass duet with Hopkins’ excoriating arco in play.
Brown’s “La Placita” is a Spanish-tinged tune that first appeared on his ESP-Disk’ LP Why Not? (1966, with Sirone). The tug of two bassists is reminiscent of Ronnie Boykins and Reggie Johnson on “Capricorn Moon,” another fine early Brown recorded work, and in actuality, this piece seems like an amalgam of both tunes. The saxophonist’s tone and phrasing are calmly aged, with Monkish flecks soaring on the ebb of a multi-tiered rhythm section. Cyrille’s unaccompanied solo is an Afro-Cuban drum choir pared down into particulate, matter-of-fact statements. Following the tense string trio of “Shift Below,” Abdullah’s arrangement of Makeba’s “Amanpondo” is a rousing dance of Township and Sufi rhythms, the latter in full bloom under the skittering bow of Billy Bang. Nearly a half-hour in length, “Amanpondo” is epic, groovy, and also terse when it needs to be. Like most of the tunes here, it follows a theme-and-solos structure, rather than collective improvisation, and even when the soloists take the music “out,” the music remains rooted.
With all the accolades showered on artists like Wynton Marsalis and his acolytes during the 1980s at the expense of “accessible avant-garde” players, it’s no surprise that a somewhat more obscure outfit like The Group remained a collective of musicians’ musicians rather than household names. But it’s clear from Live that free music and the tradition had a lot to say to one another, and that the results could be both complex and breathtakingly powerful. It’s better that we hear The Group a quarter-century late than never.
2003: Lightning Bolt - Wonderful Rainbow
Goddammit, it still makes my ears ring.
There have been countless albums I’ve loved over the years, but there are a few that are extra special, records that I immediately loved the second I heard them. And yet, even after listening to these records hundreds of times, I still feel a certain baffled wonder. Beaches and Canyons is one; Endless Summer is another. Most of Gastr Del Sol’s discography too. And then, of course, there is Lightning Bolt’s Wonderful Rainbow (our third favorite album of the 2000s).
Wonderful Rainbow turned 10 earlier this year. Is it just me, or is anyone else surprised by that? Part of that is obviously because this record still sounds like it could have come out last year, or last week, or 20 years ago (Lightning Bolt touring with a young Jesus Lizard sounds like one of the more awesome alternate realities). But I suppose I’m more surprised by the fact that
I remember the band and this particular album was recommended to me by a guy who worked in a great New Haven record store. He wrote up a big list of things he thought I might like (I can distinctly remember Kevin Drumm’s Sheer Hellish Miasma and the self-titled album by Sightings being on there). I got it, put it on, and had no idea what to expect. The first track “Hello Morning” still works best as sort of a red herring setup for what’s to come, but as soon as “Assassins” blasted in, I was sold. It takes a very special sort of band to make you a fan in under 10 seconds, but that song still does that to me after all these years. What follows is a glorious set of songs that usually get described as extremely aggressive, repetitive, redundant, melodic, manic, and chaotic. I disagree with that last one, however. Lightning Bolt are not chaotic; they are in fact absolutely graceful in their spartan simplicity, and never is that more apparent than on this record. But none of those descriptions can really get across how happy — no, how fucking blissful this record sounds or how much fun it is to listen to.
I could go on more, but I’d feel like I was giving an overlong wedding toast at a friend’s reception. Frankly, I’m just happy that we’ve all gotten to appreciate this album for a decade, and that more and more people will get to discover it over time. This thing will always loom over any band that thinks they want to play noise rock.
So thanks Lightning Bolt, and here’s to another 10 years of tinnitus from your records.
1998-2009: Angels of Light
The only downside I see about the monumental revival of Swans is that some will forget the genius of Angels of Light. At first listen, the band sounds nothing like the bleak pummeling dirges of Michael Gira’s former band’s early years. And it doesn’t resemble the deep melancholic songs of the later part of their career, either.
But Angels of Light made beautiful music. Not beautifully drenched in sorrow, at least not exclusively. On their last album (to date), We Are Him, some songs, like “Sunflower’s Here to Stay,” are relatively “bright” and comparatively “happy.” However, they use repetitive structures characteristic of Swans albums like Filth or Cop, and there’s also a bit of country influence present, adding some Southern gothic flavor.
Angels of Light remind me a bit of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Both are more conventional projects formed after their nihilistic bands imploded. Both embraced warmer tones. The difference is that Nick remained wallowing in darkness while Gira preferred to widen his scope, to explore feelings that could be both noble and sad, sometimes in the same song, as in the case of “Untitled Love Song.”
In this sense, Angels of Light exist in a gray area, expressing something neither black nor white. It’s as complex and as gradated as human emotion, something Gira needed in order to achieve the transcendent spirit that can be heard in Swans’ The Seer. That’s why one can’t listen to something like “Untitled Love Song” and not feel drenched in total brightness while tragedy unfolds right in front of us.
1972: Dark - Round the Edges
The world of psychedelic rock is littered with enough scarce “holy grails,” at least in eBay/collector parlance, that the phrase often seems to lose its impact. But a true, excellent rarity exists in the prog-influenced fuzz of Dark, a band from Northampton, UK, whose sole LP Round the Edges was privately released in an edition of 60 copies in 1972. Curiously, of the 60 pressed a few different cover variations exist, but only two LPs and one jacket have come up on the collectors’ market in the past several years. Naturally, it’s a coveted item and a few reissues have appeared, both legitimately (long out-of-print) and on the grey market. Now, Portland, Oregon’s Machu Picchu has stepped to the plate with a gorgeous and fully authorized vinyl and CD reissue with an expanded booklet and additional photographs. As with most reissues, the point in redoing it is to make sure that it’s been done right, and if Machu Picchu’s recent take on the Midwestern soft-psych Anonymous LP is any indication, Round the Edges will be treated properly.
The original LP consisted of six tracks performed by the quartet of guitarist/vocalist Steve Giles, guitarist Martin Weaver (ex-Wicked Lady), bassist Ron Johnson, and drummer Clive Thorneycroft. A few extra tracks and studio jams have also surfaced on subsequent CD editions. One can certainly hear the influence of Cream, especially in Giles’ Jack Bruce-like pipes, as well as in the clipped choogle of “Maypole,” though in that instance murky fuzz-guitar and reductionist symphonic moves quickly emerge. Lyrically, the group are often more wry than oblique, though the most compelling aspect is often the head-nodding instrumental stretches that follow, which are economical and flinty rather than ornately tangential. “Live For Today” combines this gritty electric stew with handsome drum breaks and sharp wails, while “The Cat” mixes bluesy skiffle with wiry hard rock — calm before the knotty storm of “Zero Time.” To be sure, other groups may have taken the formulas further or assembled a heavier, freer slab of psychedelic boogie, but concision and melody count for a lot in the lysergic world that Dark inhabited. although Dark disbanded soon after the LP was published, cultish interest inspired a brief and well-received reunion in 1996. More than four decades after their lone LP was waxed, Round the Edges deserves to be visited anew.
2006: Boris with Merzbow - Rock Dream
Live albums have it hard sometimes. There are many that get as much recognition as their studio counterparts (The Who’s Live at Leeds is the first example that comes to mind) but generally they seem to be kept at arm’s length by music fans. Often it’s because they exist in the awkward middle ground between sounding not as good as a studio effort and not fully capturing the feeling of being at the show. It’s an understandable argument and arguably true for many live albums, but occasionally something can come along that can actually deliver both the amazing live experience and do it with superb recording quality. That’s pretty much why Rock Dream is not just the best album Boris ever made, but also one of the finest live albums I’ve ever heard.
Rock Dream was recorded in Tokyo in 2006, one year after the band had just reached its peak in popularity with Pink. The near perfect set list reflects that, as a majority of Pink’s best tracks show up. Boris has such a diverse collection of songs that it’s not uncommon for them to split their shows into different themes. One night they may advertise as being their metal show or a jam show. Look at the tour coming this spring, you know in advance that if you go to the Flood show, you’re hearing just hearing Flood. The diversity makes them unpredictable, but could also be disappointing. Instead of them not playing your favorite song, you might go to a show and hear a completely different band than you were expecting. (Of course I would argue that is part of the fun.) You don’t get that on Rock Dream. Instead you get almost a complete encapsulation of what Boris does, in all of their forms. The album opens with a shortened version of “Feedbacker,” the band’s third attempt at creating a single song album. Though it’s certainly a bold statement to open with a 35 minute long song, it works in a way that it would have if this were just a compilation of studio tracks. “Feedbacker” is the dramatic opening to the show, it’s a part of the whole and when coupled with the doomy Pink cut, “Black Out,” and the previously unreleased noise jam “Evil Stack,” it creates the perfect amount of tension as Boris moves into their more direct material like “Rainbow” (sadly without that album’s collaborator Michio Kurihara present.) The middle of the show (and beginning of the second CD) lines up four songs of pure heavy metal, ending with the best of the batch, “Ibitsu.”
I haven’t noted the other name on this record yet, but Masami Akita (Merzbow) adapts to the environment perfectly. For this one night he’s just the fourth member of Boris. Merzbow’s material has such an incredible presence on his records, but in a collaborative setting he consistently proves to be keenly aware in his supportive roles. Akita never makes a collaboration about him and works his waves of noise and scree to fit his partners. He adds layers of extra haze to the heavy openers “Feedbacker” and “Black Out,” but then focuses his instrument to make the razor edged rush of “Pink” and “Woman on the Screen” sound better than they do in the studio. His versatility becomes clear on Boris’ gentler and prettier tracks, “Rainbow,” and “Flower Sun Rain” (a PYG cover and later a highlight off of 2008’s uneven Smile). “Rainbow” is like a breath of fresh air after the three opening tracks. The song is built on its bass line and Wata’s gentle vocals, which were a rare treat back when “Rainbow” came out. Akita recognizes this and pulls back to allow the spaciousness to develop, creating subtle menacing textures and briefly swooping in with noise. When he adds his spacey laser sounds (trust me there’s not a better way to describe it) into the PYG cover it perfectly blends with the acid soaked bliss, and wisely stays in a supporting role even as the rest of the band builds the song into a massive climax.
I’ve held back from describing the last two tracks on Rock Dream so far. The first (“Farewell”) and last (“Just Abandoned My-self”) tracks of Pink close the album, but in reverse order. That little switch is one of the things that makes this work so well as a live album. A band has the chance to rearrange the music on their set list and make songs work together in unexpected ways. When you heard Pink for the first time, “Farewell” was the ultimate album opener, and “Just…” in its 18 minute glory was like the second coming of Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea,” or My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realise.” There wasn’t a better way to end the album. I still think that those songs are exactly where they need to be on Pink. But by the end of “Just,” when the show is coming to its expected end, the guitar riff for “Farewell” quietly begins. It’s perfectly masked by Akita’s noise solo (his only true moment of full-on Merzbow assault), so you don’t quite realize that another song is coming until he stops. And Merzbow provides the foundation of noise which Boris soar over as the song reaches its crushingly heavy and beautiful peak. I still think it’s the definitive version of one of their very best songs.
I listened to Rock Dream for the first time in years recently when I decided I wanted to write this, and the best part was it still sounds as vital and powerful as it did when I heard it back in high school. I mean, some of the songs on this record are a decade old now. But that’s what’s really great about live albums, if you’re lucky you can record something that captures the energy of a band at that moment in time. It’s incredible then that someone recorded Boris and Merzbow that night, because for two hours they got to be the best band on the planet.