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.
1980: Martin Rev - Martin Rev
While a number of recent recordings have spotlighted the way in which contemporary electronic musicians effortlessly move between “serious” and “rock” impulses – and the contemporariness of that work certainly needs no validating – sometimes it is worth another look at the architects. Following in the path of Krautrock explorers on the other side of the pond as well as “protopunk” peers in Detroit and New York, electronic artist and composer Martin Rev formed Suicide with vocalist Alan Vega in 1970, though it wasn’t until 1977 that they waxed their first LP of confrontational, absurdist, and gloom-laden NYC proto-punk. Three years later, Rev and Vega released their respective solo debuts, with Rev’s both reflecting and expanding on ideas formulated over a decade of work in Suicide. Released by the Lust/Unlust imprint Infidelity (which also unleashed on the world the Mars self-titled EP and recordings by Dark Day, Z’EV and Robert Quine), Martin Rev contains six varied and almost entirely instrumental soli. Reissued on CD by ROIR a decade ago, it is now seeing its first vinyl reissue, remastered from the original tapes by Superior Viaduct (Noh Mercy, 100 Flowers, Henry Flynt) and with new liner notes courtesy Alan Licht.
The set starts with a sunny, almost bubblegum ode to his wife, “Mari” (a percussionist, the late Mari Reverby also performed in an early Suicide incarnation). Rev’s lyrical declaration of love is hazy and ecstatic psych-pop with a gritty bass line, an incisive yet ambling opener reminiscent of the Silver Apples’ most attractive work. In any “side one track one” canon, this tune should hold an estimable place. The influence of Suicide creeps into the following piece, the obsessive “Baby oh Baby,” which is the only vocal track, and while it is crashing and diffuse the piece evinces a strangely gooey optimism. “Temptation” opens the second side and blends the layered washes and pulsing landscape of Cluster and pre-disco Kraftwerk with accents and rhythmic drive pulled from Afro-Latin music, including the electronic palimpsests of a guiro – one would imagine that Latin rhythmic choruses were as prevalent in Rev’s 1970s New York listening as the gritty art-rock of his peers. Crashing and overdriven, the following “Jomo” is an intense about-face into the territory of IV-era Faust, and its fluttering overlays retain a motorik groove. The closing “Asia” holds shape with a terse piano-drum machine beat against massed organs and electronic ricochets. Cut in an era when 12” EPs were the norm, Martin Rev is lengthier than most Lust/Unlust releases at a solid thirty minutes, but the ideas and compositions are certainly good enough to warrant more. And despite that economy – or maybe because of it – Rev’s solo debut is also full of stunningly beautiful passages. One of 2013’s strongest reissues, it shouldn’t be overlooked in any study of punk-era electronics or the Madagascan array of art that permeated Koch-era New York.