Anarchist Republic of Bzzz Anarchist Republic of Bzzz

[Important; 2011]

Styles: no-wave, rap, noise, globalization
Others: Arto Lindsay, Mark Ribot, Mike Ladd, Sensational, Seb El Zin

9/11 was a musical event. After the downbeat of American Airlines Flight 11 a little before 9 AM, when midtown Manhattan shook with the sounds of a carefully-orchestrated display of power, the media began to reproduce those images and sounds like a giant bio-mechanical orchestra, channeling the tragedy into the homes of millions. Waves of telephone calls surged in and out of downtown New York, clogging phone lines with electricity and volume. The cover of The San Francisco Examiner summed up Americans’ emotions with a one-word front page: “Bastards!” And less than a month of ritual outrage transformed a president with a marginal majority into a stalwart defender of Pax Americana. But the subtext of it all, more than anything, was the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, more a fixture in the collective consciousness than a man, really, as suggested by the psychedelic depiction on the self-titled album by Anarchist Republic of Bzzz, a group consisting of guitarists Mark Ribot and Arto Lindsay with Sensational, Mike Ladd, and Seb el Zin.

The event reverberated in places far beyond the putative borders of American globalism: Andean folk singers sang about bin Laden and George Bush, Sufi musicians in Senegal referenced it. Of course, it makes sense that the largest terrorist attack on US soil and two succeeding wars would inspire some sort of musical response. Those coming out of America ranged from the stupidly jingoistic (Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” The Rising), to cynical attempts to cash in on political dissent (Rock Against Bush). The more artful attempts refused the false dichotomy — an ever-circumspect Steve Reich took a decade to process his thoughts on the event into a composition.

But what all these musics shared was an attempt to rationalize the irrational. As Adorno wrote about Vietnam protest songs, even anti-war music is “unbearable” for “taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable.” If you’ve ever wondered what Joan Baez and Skrewdriver have in common, that’s your answer. They have a common function in shoring up ideological camps that pervades their aesthetic. That’s why I find Mark Ribot’s take on the Anarchist Republic of Bzzz’ album cover so fascinating; he abandons the obvious political implications of the image.

“I have nothing to tell about him except that he was an asshole and that he’s dead,” Ribot responded. “This was the nice tradition of transgression.”

Ribot was pushing back against a reviewer who called the psychedelic drawing of bin Laden ‘prophetic.’ The reviewer was probably referring to the fact that Bin Laden had recently been killed in the raid, that the album somehow took on an extra significance because he’s dead now.

But baldly political readings like that come off as facile and inadequate. ARBzzz deals with the problem of rationalizing the irrational in the same way beat poets did: by throwing out the whole Enlightenment project of rationality altogether. It’s in the name; an Anarchist Republic itself is something of a non-sequitur. “I seen you surfin’ on the hot lava/ Coming down the mountain in the Big Island/ Hawaii style/ Gonna sink an Okinawa/ But I still got Enola Gays comin’ out my gaze and I catch you on the early days of bomb shelters,” raps Mike Ladd on “Ibn Battuta eats ruccola.” I don’t know what it means, but it sounds really cool.

The second track, “Yguduh,” is a huge clue to understanding the Anarchist Republic project as first and foremost an experiment in sound. The lyrics are borrowed from an e.e. cummings poem about two hayseeds arguing about World War II. The poem is written phonetically, such that the only way to understand its meaning is to read it out loud. In the hands of Ladd, the poem becomes a verbal assault weapon, more about rhythm than meaning. But upon digging, the poem makes their conceptual preoccupations clear as well — the last lines (written in plain English) read “little yellow bastards, we’re gwin’ ta CIVILIZE ‘em!”

The stark contrast between the two MCs — Mike Ladd’s sartorial beat-poetry and Sensational’s larger-than-life parody of hip-hop braggadocio — is one of the most challenging aspects of the album. On “CIA Spy Dub,” Sensational comes off as downright conversational, slurring syllables and tripping over the atonal guitar and feedback. “Sail Away Ladies” and “Yguduh” are both conceptual re-imaginings of the American canon, the sort of thing you’d expect from the well-read Ladd, who went to school in Cambridge. Sure, it’s a bit disjointed, but it asks the listener to accept the album as a whole, insinuating that Sensational’s introverted ranting and Ladd’s preoccupation — here, war — are more related than we care to admit.

“Sail Away Ladies” is a dissonant, tortured take on what was once a popular folk tune. It’s full of harsh tremolos and industrial noise. “Ain’t no use to sit and cry/ You’ll be an angel by and by” takes on a whole new meaning when Ladd drops a line about “bombs in my shoes” right in the middle.

Ringleader Seb El Zin deserves serious points for originality and ambition; this is a collaboration that, at its face, seems like a terrible idea. That it sounds so urgent and the worldview so clear speak volumes of his production skills. El Zin mixes Ribot’s and Lindsay’s guitars into moments that counter Ladd’s and Sensational’s lyrics at times and underlie them at others. For an album as devoid of traditional melody as this one is, he manages to draw out a marvelously varied palette.

But while it’s perhaps par for the course that an album that combines no-wave guitarists and underground MCs might sound a little disjointed, it isn’t helped by the fact that Ladd and Sensational don’t appear together on a single track. And the fact that the B-side of the vinyl release is supposed to be played at 45 RPM seems more a result of a lack of other material than an artistic decision.

The group is reportedly influenced by Kabbalah, and there’s an esoteric influence in the original label’s moniker too, Sub Rosa. Esotericism’s influence — the notion of hidden knowledge, subtext — seems to be hinted at in the style and cover art of the album, in the hidden spontaneous order of the noise-sound collages that make up the Anarchist Republic’s instrumentation, in the incidental meanings of the words. But most of all, in the demagogue “asshole” on the cover, the form of the human subtext that inspired death, war, and, yes, music.

Links: Anarchist Republic of Bzzz - Important

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