A few years ago, my cousin complained to me. Following my advice, he had went to see Cap’n Jazz on their reunion tour and told me they were awful. According to him, they had a minimal grasp of rhythm, and their screams were out of tune. Worse of all, the audience was yelling along with them. Not singing along. Yelling.
Cap’n Jazz, fronted by brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, played avant-garde music for the broken-hearted and the perpetually nostalgic, people who treasured Catcher in the Rye from the very first page. Yes, we all know the word “emo,” but Cap’n Jazz went beyond the screams and power chords; they made music that was as tangled and knotty as their emotions. It embodied their rage and sadness in an explosive, responsive way. To me, they were the wimpy, dorky Stooges of that generation, except they knew that was bullshit and rejected themselves as such; they knew that nobody then needed someone to tell them that it was another year with nothing to do.
Their take on emotionally-charged experimentation can be heard on “In The Clear,” a song that flows in furious passages that you can sing along to, yet the most powerful moment comes when someone screams half the alphabet and concludes it with “lost!” It’s ostentatious, funny and yet incredibly earnest.
This is what I grew up with, what I get and what gets me (or got me back then); even if I didn’t have direct contact with the actual music, I instinctively responded to it. I bet the members of the band don’t mind not being understood, but I think that’s part of their appeal. It’s all heart and neurosis.
There’s been a long history of pop musicians going off the deep end and into the realm of experimental music. While these flirtations have been common since the 1960s onward, some of the most fascinating cases happen when the transition comes seemingly out of the blue. Tim Buckley’s Lorca and Starsailor albums may in some ways be some of the earliest and most radical examples of this transformation, but there are also the classic instances of Scott Walker’s and Talk Talk’s dark later work, as well as David Sylvian’s gradual descent into free-jazz-afflicted folk and onkyo-obsessed songwriting. However, despite the seemingly disparate nature between these artists’ experimentally minded compositions and their more commercial work, there’s always been something of a common thread. Walker’s “Farmer in the City” could easily have fit on Scott 3; Buckley’s virtuosic singing seemed to be a natural fit for the Ligeti-esque textures he attempted with Lorca and Starsailor; and Sylvian had been working collaboratively with experimental musicians such as Jon Hassel and Holger Czukay since his debut solo album.
With Paddy McAloon’s I Trawl the Megahertz, the aesthetic continuity isn’t so readily apparent. McAloon is best known as the leader of the harmonically rich twee-pop band Prefab Sprout, whose pop perfectionism doesn’t quite prepare one for the surreal, dark world of McAloon’s lone solo record. Of course, despite Prefab’s sunny exterior, it was clear with extensive listening that the band’s songs often hid their sadness under the catchiest of tunes. Take their hit “The King of Rock n Roll,” for example: it’s a pretty silly song, until you realize the lyrics come from the perspective of a washed-up one-hit wonder whose goofiest work overshadows all of his attempts at real artistry. But maybe it’s for this reason that I Trawl the Megahertz feels like something of a shock: it wears all of its sorrow on its sleeve and does away with McAloon’s pop-song mastery in favor of minimalist orchestration, bizarrely bleak spoken word, and an undeniably chilly atmosphere.
I Trawl the Megahertz is by no means an abrasive or dissonant record, but it is undeniably idiosyncratic and heartbreaking. All of these things are apparent from the opening of the title track onward. The title track is nearly 22 minutes long and consists of a gorgeous repeated theme (McAloon’s harmonic sensibilities are still in play here) that sounds like it could soundtrack the saddest Disney movie never written, with its lurching strings, vaudevillian whistles, and ghostly guitar. Early in the work, a woman’s voice comes in and delivers blunt observational lines, like the unforgettable, “I said, ‘Your daddy loves you very much/ He just doesn’t want to live with us anymore.” It’s a beautifully powerful work that suggests what might happen if Robert Ashley’s later operas had used full orchestration and were crushingly sincere.
From there, the record moves into a frosty Philip Glass-like suite of instrumental pieces that eventually give way to the two other tracks with vocals, “I’m 49” and “Sleeping Rough.” “I’m 49” sounds quite similar to the territory that Oneohtrix Point Never has been mining recently with its pastiche of talk-show voices, electronics, and beautiful cascading arpeggios. “Sleeping Rough,” on the other hand, is an unbelievably devastating song featuring McAloon crooning like a slightly less depraved Scott Walker. “Sleeping Rough” is perhaps the only transparent reference to the experiences that inspired I Trawl the Megahertz’s elegiac glacial tone. “I’m lost, I’ll grow a long and silver beard,” McAloon sings. While this lyric could be read as a meta-commentary on the stylistic change of the record, it becomes heartbreaking when you realize that the singer/composer had temporarily gone blind due to illness while writing this material. However, despite the seemingly bleak-sounding nature of I Trawl the Megahertz’s various components, McAloon’s arrangements and tonalities make it clear that the singer remained hopeful and artistically forward-looking, despite the seemingly dire situation of his health.
Much of the album’s arrangements are quite reminiscent of a number of contemporary experimental musicians who have recently made forays into more texturally rich material. Sean McCann’s Music for Private Ensemble comes to mind when listening to the mixture of MIDI, live orchestration, and natural sounds on the album’s instrumental tracks, and the record’s title track would not feel too out of place on a Julia Holter record. McAloon may never work with this particular set of tools again, but it’s clear that he has many like-minded contemporaries employing similar resources in their own work nowadays. I Trawl the Megahertz may be an anomaly in McAloon’s discography, but it’s an anomaly that sounds more beautiful and relevant than ever.
For as legendary and influential as Britain’s Rudimentary Peni have been among fans of goth and deathrock, they’re not widely appreciated outside those tight-knit circles. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this fact. Between the band’s jagged, lurching, and mercilessly compressed compositions and Nick Blinko’s strangled delivery, RP were destined to be an acquired taste from the start. Add to that the group’s peculiar working habits — long stretches between releases, refusal to tour (or even perform live, for the most part), and Blinko’s well-known aversion to doing interviews — and it’s actually kind of a miracle anyone outside the UK was able to learn about these guys at all in the pre-internet days of the 1980s.
Truth be told, they might have escaped my attention if not for Southern Records’ recently initiated project to reissue the band’s out-of-print discography, which was serendipitously preceded at the beginning of this year by Chelsea Wolfe’s excellent Latitudes session Prayer for the Unborn, an EP’s worth of reworkings of Rudimentary Peni songs. Wolfe’s own exposure to RP was perfectly in keeping with the group’s cult status: one day she walked in on her roommate listening to them. Wolfe became fascinated by the records, their intricate black-and-white album art (designed by Blinko himself), and the group’s bleakly surreal, existential lyrics — so much so that some of the selections off Prayer were composed without her even having heard the original songs they were based on.
Cacophony is considered by many to be the band’s finest work, and it is undoubtedly their most ambitious. The album was recorded following the first major disruption in the band’s career, a four-year hiatus during bassist Grant Matthews’ bout with cancer. Cacophony finds Blinko assuming control of the songwriting duties, which had chiefly belonged to Matthews prior to his illness (“Well, I thought that Grant felt that his lyrics weren’t relevant anymore or something,” Blinko explains in a rare interview from 1992). Under Blinko’s lead, the band fully detached from its anarcho-punk roots and grew into an honest-to-goodness deathrock band. Leftist politics was Matthews’ thing; Blinko was all about Lovecraft. The album shows a deep immersion in Lovecraft’s life and work, appropriating his mythology (both literary and personal), lapsing into his grandiloquent diction, and tracing the sordid lineage of his macabre visions. While RP were never strangers to the gothic (their previous album had sported tracks titled “Cosmic Hearse” and “Flesh Crucifix,” after all), Cacophony was the album that would forever endear them to the black eyeliner set.
In terms of its complexity, diversity, and sheer density, the record was a giant leap beyond anything the band had previously attempted. While Blinko’s voice seemed to max out at a piercing rasp in the band’s early work, his vocals on Cacophony are so protean and unpredictable one could almost believe he was playing host to a demonic legion. He employs well over a dozen voices throughout the record: inhuman utterances (the dry croaking on “Crazed Couplet” and “Nightgaunts,” the ghastly keening at the end of “The Only Child”), distinct musical personae (the clinically detached narrator of “Better Not Born” and the reedy, crisp diction of the speaker on “Dream City”), and dramatic spoken word interludes (the frantic newscaster at the end of “The Evil Clergyman,” the Shakespearian monologue in “Brown Jenkin,” and the wizened New Englander who mourns Lovecraft’s wasted talents on “Imps of the Perverse”). There’s also Gregorian chant, drinking songs, and a track that’s mostly just fart noises.
The dramatic shifts in persona are matched by a musical accompaniment that’s ready and able to change tempos or time signatures at a moment’s notice. The album contains some of RP’s heaviest tracks up to that time (check out the plodding riff on “Zenophobia” and Jon Grenville’s thundering rhythm on “The Only Child”), pointing towards the almost-heavy-metal leanings of their more recent work. Yet other tracks, like the instrumental “The Evil Clergyman” or “Dream City” move into a post-punk territory that sounds like a more amped-up version of The Cure. And while Blinko may be the most visible member of the trio on this release, it’s impossible to calculate just how important Grant Matthews is to making these songs pop. Matthews’ bass sits high in the mix and works its ass off to earn that place of prominence. He continually finds unique ways to introduce wrinkles into what could otherwise have been overly-pat melodies.
Trying to take Cacophony in as a whole is an experience not unlike trying to look upon one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. The totality of it is too mottled and gnarled, its form dictated by a geometry not of this universe — it’s not for nothing Piero Scaruffi dubbed the album “the Trout Mask Replica of British Punk.” But sinking into its peculiar madness is a sweeter fate than that experienced by Mr. Delapore or Robert Olmstead. The more time you spend with this eldritch tome, the more you may come to realize you’ve developed a taste for its ghastly pleasures.
In 1985, The Ramones penned “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a song that’s obviously not as popular as “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “I Want To Be Sedated.” In fact, The Ramones, at the time, were in their wilderness years, hopping from producer to producer and releasing albums with the hope that one would “break” them. They wanted to be popular and live the good life. As we all know, it didn’t happen that way.
The Ramones were not known to take on causes or make strong opinions on serious matters, but “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” was an exception. The track was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where many Waffen-SS soldiers are buried. Reagan’s discourse during his visit was that, while he didn’t excuse the systematic mass murder of millions of people, these soldiers were “victims” or just “simply following orders.” To many ears, the then President was making excuses for genocide.
The Ramones were notorious for their occasional use of Nazi symbols — thanks to main songwriter Dee Dee’s fascination with WWII memorabilia — but this time, the band didn’t joke about Nazis in love. While Joey was Jewish and helped pen the song, it is said that Dee Dee was the one who wanted to say that there was no excuse for that kind of demonstration. The track is also notable song because it criticizes a Republican politician, something they had stayed away from since Johnny became a supporter of the conservative party. (Johnny plays on the song, but he requested it be renamed to “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down” for Animal Boy.)
The story of the Ramones is filled with clashes of personality that (arguably) held them back during their lifetime, but it’s amazing that a song so polarizing to the various individuals could not only happen, but also become one of their finest moments.
I should tell you that, on a Saturday night early in 2012, I told my roommates that I was staying in and found something on the internet. It was late, around 1 AM I think, when I found this thing on the internet, and it became very important to me, inarguably the most important thing. Around 4 AM, when my the roommates returned from the bars, I was awake with this thing in my room.
See, what I found on the internet was a song, but first it was a black-and-white video shot from the passenger seat of a car to music. The car in the video drives slow down a road empty but for its dirt and coursing foliage; a single moth flashes white hot early on, lit up by the car’s headlights, but other than that. Then the road becomes paved, teeming with life, or signifiers of life: cars passing other cars, a tunnel, lights that threaten overexposure: structures and infrastructures that humans build. The camera wobbles, but I don’t know that it trembles, because trembling requires a person to tremble, and there are no people in sight.
Midway through this video, credits somehow roll, and I became very nervous for the song, absurdly. This song is the single most important thing, and it wouldn’t be right to do it so wrong. But the car continues and ends, as the song does, abruptly, early, wrongly, as expected.
I found the song in its complete version that same night, not much later. I got to know it, and I was so happy. By the early morning, the song became for me a part of a record, but I still prefer it alone and disfigured, as it was that one time on camera.
There’s never been more a more dangerous threat to rock than restraint, never a more pernicious maxim than nothing in excess. Well, that might not be a rule that can actually be generalized for every case, but it goes some way in describing the pleasure of listening to The Speaking Canaries’ fourth album, Get Out Alive: The Long Version. That’s not to say there aren’t quiet moments, and it’s also not to say that the album’s more violently noisy passages won’t suddenly erupt into well-executed, “anthemic” (maybe even “catchy”!) indie rock choruses. But there is an equal portion of the album displaying the band’s mastery over a build-and-release aesthetic that folds into sheer fucking joyousness — the contrasts that frame and heighten the excess. So, an expansive opener verging on half an hour long is immediately followed by a more restrained song that features glockenspiel and falsetto singing, followed again by a hectic clanging racket.
Although The Speaking Canaries’ main guy Damon Che is better known as Don Caballero’s drummer (which he does a little here too), it’s his guitar playing that’s the protagonist in this particular tale, employing everything from chaotic six-string torture, to hacking and jittery math-rock, and all the way to pinch harmonics and back again, almost to the point of note-per-minute showoffery. Che is also the vocalist in this project, and when the lyrics turn out to be not-cutesy metaphors or surreal evocations (“She’ll spear your heart in the Fox Chapel/ She’ll stomp it on Squirrel Hill”) and are instead grounded references to Pittsburgh geography, they serve to pull the album back down to more earthly realms. Other times — as with the barely intelligible spoken narratives low in the mix on “Last Side of Town Pt.1” or the shrieked exchanges with a mysterious Ingrid on “Life-like Homes” — they push things further from the everyday. This is most evident with Che’s periodic yells and whoops, which feel like pure expressions of some uncontainable whatever. Or at least until you compare them to the joy-yelps on the previous album, Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged, which appeared in exactly the same places on the completely re-recorded version as they did on the first version. So, maybe it’s not the same story on Get Out Alive. But planned or not, the spontaneity and joie de vivre feel real all the same, transmitted as they are directly and without need of the messy matter of meaning.
And about the album title’s qualification: there are a few different versions of the album (the CD and LP versions have the subtitle The Last Type Story), but you should be listening to “The Long Version,” the 76-odd-minute CD-R incarnation. Cobbled together from bits of EPs and extended versions, it’s a perfect junkyard assemblage. It’s the least diluted and most comprehensive version; constraints are least in evidence. Over the course of its running time, there’s scarcely a concession to coherence or to the usual standards of contemporaneous indie rock good taste (though no Van Halen covers on this one; you’ll have to go to back to Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged for not one, but two of them). Sure, the production varies on the tracks and the levels of the drums fluctuate, but it just doesn’t matter when the album is so busy delivering its consignment of exuberant rock.
After the release of Get Out Alive, a few new songs were performed on a WFMU radio show, and there were whispers on the internet that a new album had been recorded. But alas, it never emerged. For better or for worse, Che reformed Don Caballero (without any other original members), and a couple of their newer songs were somewhat Canaries-esque, but we haven’t heard from The Speaking Canaries since.
Criminally overlooked and tragically short-lived, Texas trio Lift to Experience were simply too pure and beautiful to be long for this world. Their double-disc concept album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, was their first and final record before the band split to pursue their separate careers. LTE’s potent mixture of prog rock, post-punk, and shoegaze was enough to garner them some favorable press, but their album’s bizarre narrative arc, which placed Texas at the center of a biblical apocalypse and recast the three band members as prophets of the coming Kingdom of God, must have proven a little too much for audiences (stateside, at least — they apparently developed quite a following in Europe), and the group quickly faded into semi-obscurity.
It was a good six or seven years after album was released before I discovered it, having been gifted with a burned copy by fellow TMTer Paul Bower during one of his visits to Chicago. I fell immediately under its spell, drawn in by the extraordinary power of the music, but also out of a peculiar sense of kinship with the band’s frontman, Josh “Buck” Pearson. Pearson grew up as part of the Word of Faith Movement of the Pentecostal Church, which advances a radical version of the Prosperity Gospel. When Pearson was four, his father stopped working to support his family, believing that all their material needs could be met through faith in God alone and that little things like “jobs” and “salaries” were redundant, if not outright blasphemous. Pearson’s mother wisely filed for a divorce, but Pearson continued to be an active member of the Pentecostal church throughout his youth.
I’ve spoken briefly about my own history with some of Christianity’s more peculiar outgrowths. While my experiences were nowhere near as extreme as Pearson’s, I couldn’t help but perceive a pained spirituality in his writing that felt achingly familiar. Music is a pretty common medium for young people to work through their religious ambivalence. Many approach the subject with a healthy dose of irony, poking fun at its contradictions and excesses, and in this regard, Lift to Experience was no different. The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads was full of absurd juxtapositions of supernatural grandeur with earthly squalor and mundanity. What made it so remarkable, however, was that its irony did not create distance between the artists and their subject. Pearson’s voice was not that of the Enlightened 21st-century Rationalist scoffing at the backwards ways of the masses of ignorant theists. He felt too intensely the beauty of his object and identified too closely with his protagonists, and when it became necessary to dig beneath their veneer of ecstatic fervor to uncover some uncomfortable truth, it was evident that he was also digging into himself.
Keeping this in mind, it’s probably no surprise that “To Guard and to Guide You” was one of the tracks I found most personally moving. Like the rest of the songs on the album, its lyrics draw extensively from other sources, Christmas hymns (“Angels We Have Heard on High”) and country songs (“Under the X in Texas”), but most significantly from a common Christian prayer, the Angel of God:
Angel of God my guardian dear,
To whom God’s Love commits me here,
Ever this day, be at my side
To light, to guard, to rule and to guide me.
With its brevity and its sing-song, nursery-rhyme quality, the Angel of God is a children’s prayer, and if it was not the first prayer that was learned by heart, it was certainly among them. The prayer forms the song’s refrain, with Pearson only flipping the wording of the last line to make it “To light, to rule/ To guard and to guide.”
I remember being taught, from a very early age, about my guardian angel. I was told that he (or she, but we tended to refer to him with masculine pronouns in my house) was chosen by God to watch over me from the moment of my conception, to look out for my physical and spiritual well-being. I was taught to invoke him often to ask for help and guidance, and as a result, my angel never felt like an abstract concept or a fairy tale, but rather a genuine presence in my life, such that, to this day, I recite that prayer every time I take a trip or get behind the wheel of a car. Such that, were I to lose all belief in God and to renounce my Catholic faith in its entirety, I would feel my guardian angel’s loss as the passing of a lifelong friend.
Hearing those childish words crop up in the middle of an indie prog-rock song tugs at those deep and buried corners of my consciousness and calls forth only the best associations that I have with Christianity. I don’t know what Josh Pearson’s relationship with God is like. I don’t know how sincerely he identifies as a Christian these days or what being a Christian means to him personally. But whatever bad shit he experienced as a result of his parents’ religious belief, I’m sure that he has a memory, not much different from my own, of sitting on his mother’s knee while she rehearsed the words to that simple, ancient prayer, pressing each syllable into the tender folds of his heart where they could grow to form a shelter for the difficult years ahead.
2003: Cave In - Antenna
What does “selling out” entail? Is it simply to sign to a major label? Is it to get a ton of money in exchange for playing music? Of course, at some level, I do understand the basic ideas of “selling out.” Metallica “sold out” with the Black Album, Celtic Frost “sold out” with Cold Lake, Chumbawamba “sold out” with “Tumthumbing.” I get it. You compromise your sound and ideals in order to gain a ton of money and fame. You want your song on the radio and to rub shoulders next to Amanda Bynes. Still, there’s no accepted limitations of what constitutes being a sellout. Someone’s success story and well wishes are another’s curses and angry tweets. It’s what fuels the most heated and nightmarish drunken arguments between music fans at 3 AM.
Cave In sold out. Yep, they signed to RCA (a big and powerful label back then) and shed their sometimes heavy and angular (Until Your Heart Stops), sometimes psychedelic and layered (Jupiter) sound and embraced what you might call “traditional songwriting.” The guitars sounded big and compressed, and Stephen Brodsky’s voice recalled Brandon Boyd from Incubus. Basically, it’s a picture of rock radio in 2003.
Still, I can’t help to think that Cave In’s way of selling out wasn’t such a cut-and-dried case as one might think. Even though the songs had a structure and sound made for the masses, the band had always modified their approach to reach different ground. Moreover, listening to “Seafrost,” “Youth Overrided,” and the intro to “Penny Racer,” you can hear both fragments of their old sounds as well as things to come. Which is exactly why I think the album is worth revisiting. The band might shift gears often (or not, considering how much time they spend going in and out of hiatus), but there are elements that remain constant for them. Above all, their gift for songwriting is unmatched by most of their peers; they are able to make complicated music (to various degrees) with great lyrics that unfold before your ears and remain etched in your memory.
Like most things in life, selling out is not so easily explained, and in the case of Cave In, it yielded solid music, regardless of its mission.
Cleveland, like its rust belt neighbor to the north, Detroit, has had a rough go of it for the last few decades. In many ways, the cities mirror each other: loss of industry and white flight have left the cities with more infrastructure than they need and well more than they can maintain, resulting in inner-city wastelands of abandoned homes, shuttered shops, and factories, and while a viral YouTube video proclaimed Cleveland’s problems not QUITE the equal of Detroit’s, the two cities’ fates grow more similar yearly.
But despite being the home of the absurd Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland’s reputation as a source of great bands has never equaled Detroit’s. No Motown, no Stooges, no White Stripes. Even smaller Akron, 40 minutes to the south, lays claim to Devo, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and more recently, The Black Keys. Long-running experimental rockers Pere Ubu may be Cleveland’s most critically-beloved musical export this side of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
Of course, that can’t be the whole story: a city of its size is bound to produce more than a few diamonds in the rough, and local son Mark Edwards’ My Dad Is Dead was exactly that. From 1985 until 2009, Edwards and a rotating cast of bit players pumped out some 11 full-length albums (depending on how you count), all while remaining almost entirely under the radar. 1989’s The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get was a coulda-been breakthrough for the band. Released on the Long Island label Homestead Records, which boasted at the time a roster including Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and Nick Cave (Sebadoh’s The Freed Man holds the catalog number immediately before The Taller You Are…), it’s remarkable on two counts: how good it is, and how little it’s known.
Edwards plays nearly every sound heard on the album, which covers everything from pretty, jangly guitar instrumentals to Joy Division- and Devo-referencing New Wave numbers. Perhaps it’s Edwards’ nasal, thickly Cleveland-accented singing voice in combination with the depressed, neurotic lyrics of songs like “Seven Years” and “The Only One” that kept the band from a wider audience. Some writers have speculated that the birth of grunge blotted out what audience there would have been for the nervier (some might say wimpier), wiry indie rock of the type Edwards made, but in retrospect, it seems that My Dad Is Dead may have been both after their time and ahead of it.
A few years ago, Edwards finally quit Cleveland and moved to Chapel Hill, and officially ended the MDID project in 2010. Listening to The Taller You Are in 2013, nearly 25 years after it poked its head out between albums by Thurston Moore and Lou Barlow and then quickly vanished, it sounds more immediate and relevant than it has any right to. Score one for Cleveland.
European free music, experimental, and lowercase improvisation would look and sound quite a bit different without the presence of England’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble, active from 1966 until the death of constant fulcrum and percussionist John Stevens in 1994 at age 54. Stevens was a fixture in West London and studied music while in the Royal Air Force where he formed relationships with other notable UK modernists, alto saxophonist Trevor Watts and trombonist Paul Rutherford (1940-2007). Influenced by British bop tour-de-force Phil Seamen, Stevens was something of a regular at the storied Ronnie Scott’s club, but searching for something beyond bebop led him, Rutherford and Watts to form a group that quickly developed into the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
While a name like “Spontaneous Music Ensemble” might imply a sense of complete openness and absence of predetermined form, the SME at its outset was decidedly more reined in. Taking cues from American forebears like reedman Eric Dolphy (whose untimely death was still fresh on musicians’ minds) and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the SME played compositions from the books of its three principals. Curiously, it didn’t take long for the group to record, and with Canadian expatriate trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and Australian troubadour bassist Bruce Cale in tow (replaced on two tracks by premier London bop bassist Jeff Clyne), the SME cut eight pieces for issue on the tiny Eyemark label as Challenge in 1966. Long out of print and in heavy demand, the Emanem label reissued it with two extra tracks in 2001, and now that CD has once again become available.
“E.D.’s Message” starts the proceedings and is certainly Dolphy-esque in its sprightly charge, though the ensuing improvisation from the horns is a tumbling swath of variegated colors, bright but with a density more akin to the music Albert Ayler and the New York Art Quartet were creating in East Village lofts. Watts’ acerbic wail is thoughtfully behind the beat and takes center stage with the burbled goads of his fellow hornmen, while Stevens takes a mostly unaccompanied solo suspended between Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Sunny Murray before the ensemble makes a pensive reentry. “Club 66” has a curiously isolationist thread to its improvisations, with trombone, flugelhorn, alto, and bass each taking pensive, exploratory themes against Stevens’ impulsive shimmer, bookended by a clarion near-waltz theme that recalls the writing of trumpeter Booker Little. “Day of Reckoning” is tough and declamatory at its anthemic outset, but the interactions between brass/reeds, bass, and percussion display a delicately taut interdependence. It is clear that even when the SME engages the structural trappings of jazz in a “free-bop” setting, the nuanced improvisations between those lines are a greater focal point and may actually have little to do with thematic material. That dichotomy is in itself quite interesting and, while it eventually required abandoning tunes altogether, the isolated movements that lie between the frames create a uniquely tense environment.
The CD reissue of Challenge also includes a lengthy open improvisation, “Distant Little Soul,” from early 1967 with Stevens, Watts, saxophonist Evan Parker and the obscure bassist Chris Cambridge (who wrote the liner notes to the original LP); Watts doubles on piccolo here and his flights mesh beautifully with Parker’s slick soprano inroads. While not particularly sought out by record companies, the SME did wax a number of LPs after Challenge, and a track like “Distant Little Soul” is indicative of the group’s exploratory dedication whether or not a formal recording session was possible. By 1968’s Karyobin (Island), tunes had been dropped in favor of incisive free conversations with defined lengths, and while open improvisation was the group’s focus, it was with a shared, evolving language that emerged through constant playing and workshopping. Even as strict “heads” were jettisoned, Stevens did workshop motives for improvisation such as the “Click Piece” and the “Sustain Piece,” utilizing short, sharp sounds or long tones as a basis for group playing with the idea that people of varying skill levels may have much to contribute.
By the early 1970s the SME had pared itself down to consist only of Watts and Stevens, with the latter employing an extremely small kit; he also began playing cornet as well as using his voice. As the music evolved, the SME’s improvisations demanded as much attention to silence and detail as they did a thick sonic palette. Adding onto the small frame of a dryly tuned, minimal drum set and breath/voice was an occasional but significant necessity, fleshed out in such combinations as the Spontaneous Music Orchestra and a variety of mid-size groups. Though Watts left the SME by the late 1970s to concentrate on his own groups Amalgam and Moiré Music, Stevens continued the ensemble with younger second- and third-wave British improvisers including guitarist Roger Smith, violinist Nigel Coombes, cellist Colin Wood, and (later) saxophonist John Butcher. Smith, Coombes, Wood, and Stevens comprised the SME of Biosystem (1977), which was released on the Incus label (and reissued on Evan Parker’s psi label), and saw the SME texturally reshaped into a sparse and darting strings-and-percussion unit.
New Surfacing consists of two live recordings from 1978 and 1992 with Stevens, Coombes and Smith, and presents what were previously cassette-copy fragments (originally issued on separate Emanem and Konnex CDs) in a definitive, straight-from-the-masters edition. The 1978 pieces were recorded in Newcastle as part of a set opposite multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford’s duo with cellist Tristan Honsinger; while decidedly low-fidelity, the material represents excellently a quality that emerged in later SME music — that of roomy drift and frustrating “doldrums” against fidgety group impulsions. In fact, while it is fair to say that deep listening is a major part of the SME aesthetic, to the point that Stevens and company developed an intuitive language of play that went beyond even the subtlest aspects of jazz communication, independence and non-listening were also an important hallmark.
It seems like this counteractive improvisational sense was clearer in the group’s later edition, as Stevens plays against (or flat out rejects) the soaring lines of Coombes’ violin and Smith’s detuned, seasick acoustics just as much as he interleaves his sounds with theirs. It’s reminiscent at times of Weasel Walter’s boisterous clatter and anti-motion, as Stevens hacks, patters, and obsesses in direct, absurd contrast to the string players’ complex and sometimes romantic phrasing. This is even more clearly evident on the 1992 London piece, “Complete Surfaces,” which is taken from a crisp DAT recording and albeit with less ghostly spatial reverb, offers a punchier view of the music’s latticework with Smith’s guitar alternating percussive asides to Stevens’ nattering paths. New Surfacing doesn’t present the last recordings in the SME discography — for that one would have to hear A New Distance, recorded in 1994 for John Butcher’s Acta label (reissued later on Emanem), with Butcher’s tenor in place of Coombes’ violin for a decidedly rugged take on the group’s speedily obstinate improvisations.
A quick word about the Emanem label, which has tirelessly documented the recorded activity of the SME for close to 40 years: while Stevens’ music (which also included such groups as Detail and Away, among others) was by no means unheard, the evolution of his instrumental approach and the SME’s palette often happened apart from any sort of commercial recording schedule. Luckily, Emanem founder Martin Davidson has been able to release a significant amount of that music, and it’s hard to imagine that Stevens’ stature (or that of some of his contemporaries) would be the same otherwise. Originally based in the UK, Emanem has shifted home base a few times over its existence, including stints in the US and Australia, and recently relocated to Spain. Their catalog of contemporary and historical improvisation is impressive and well worth investigating beyond the Spontaneous Music Ensemble axis.