Sun Araw Off Duty [EP]

[Woodsist; 2010]

Styles: psych, trance, experimental, drone
Others: Pocahaunted, Sun Ra, Magic Lantern, Dylan Ettinger, Jean Michael Jarre, Wet Hair

I was born into a house across the street from a bike gang hideout and witnessed daily bloody beatings and police interventions at my public middle school — but I wasn’t really scared of much until my family moved into a newer, whiter suburb that went silent with the darkness. I was, and in the same kind of neighborhoods remain to this day, convinced that they are the most dangerous places in the country, because they are so empty that anything can happen and no one will ever see it, and because, as I saw firsthand, they can breed a sociopathic disregard for anyone who doesn’t fit in. I constantly fantasized about being jumped late at night by a pack of clean-cut, unloved, white athletes.

Like those safe, homey suburbs where some of us were always outsiders, Sun Araw is normal at the edge of unnerving, a rock band setup that sure doesn’t make rock music, but chants and rituals and slow builds; these songs mostly hover around the 10-minute mark: real journeys. There are no words, just long, hazy notes, as if heard from a great distance; loping, steady, simple rhythms; and guitar threads that go haywire.

There was emptiness inside that new house, too, a huge attic that seemed full of the same empty possibility of the silent, empty streets. To move through it you had to walk on ceiling joists to avoid falling through the pink fiberglass insulation into the kitchen, but for some reason, far to the back, there was a tiny, finished room. It had a half-sized door, the ceiling was only four feet tall, and when I first discovered it, it was completely empty. I wanted to understand what this room was for, and sometimes I would go in and shut the door and turn off the bare bulb that hung from the low ceiling and I would sit in the total darkness. I remember feeling both completely safe and paralyzed with terror.

On the cover of Sun Araw’s 2009 album Heavy Deeds, you can make out the smiling face of Stevie Wonder, but it’s an anachronistic tribute. Sun Araw make Black Music, not of the 20th century, but of the 18th, the 17th, and not of America, but of some other distant, imagined country. Blackness means a lot of things for us today — Black is power, Black is beautiful, and of course Black for a lot of people is still a lot of scary things born out of willful ignorance and anger. But in today’s America, Black is pretty specific, and it can be hard to think back to a different kind of darkness, the Dark Continent, the Heart of Darkness. These are ideas themselves born of a mix of racism and fear, but take away the element of race and something truer is left — we all feel that infinite inside, a place where we can lose ourselves, in ourselves, just as easily as losing our place on a map.

Heavy Deeds had an undercurrent of Wonder joy, but Sun Araw is deeper into the jungle here, off duty and off the hidden track, a PT boat trip up the Mekong to get some Horror. The distortion is thicker, the pulse still slow and syrupy but now occasionally fractured. It’s the outer-inner dark space of Miles’ Dark Magus, sometimes it’s Albert Ayler blowing sheets of sound distorted by the rampant plunge of starving lungs, and of course it’s always the Black Arkaeology of Sun Ra. Because as much as Africa became the home of displaced id, the focus of desire and fear, America is where Africa itself got displaced, un-homed, surrounded by darkness. How is claiming to be from Saturn any crazier than the idea that your great-great grandfather was a conquered warrior an ocean away, and here you are in the Chicago slums? That’s not home. For black Americans, home is always somewhere else, and since black Americans have been made to make America, just a little reflection can bring any American to the realization that we are not who we are told we are, are not from where we say we’re from, do not live where we think we live.

Sun Araw is inside and outside, the home and the wilderness, like that tiny attic room, like darkness itself. You can’t have echoes without walls, but somehow when a voice ricochets and spins wordlessly we think about spaces, distances to be traveled, maybe even outer space, even though there’s no sound there. When something repeats, like the disembodied funk licks that trace dark waves on tracks like “Midnight Locker,” we don’t think of staying in one place — we move with the same thing to the same places that are still somehow strange. I think about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, in which a suburban tract home is found to contain a dark, black universe of monolithic caves, of immemorial stones, of death and of echoes that measure impossible miles.

Off Duty starts not with an insinuating shimmy or a building echo, but with a full-blown explosion (“Last Chance”). When we hear that buzz and grind of over-loaded circuits we think of power, even though what we are hearing is power throttled, impeded. Maybe there’s enough power in there to get us home again, to find us the spirit, to hear degree zero. A half-century ago, Link Wray stabbed a pencil through his amplifier head, as if trying to write the truth on the heart of noise, and now anyone who grew up not understanding themselves, much less other people, has a natural hatred for the clean and bright and clear, for the direct brazenness of a polished singer tracked directly to operatic tapes, for melodies and harmonies that resolve neatly into predictable little emotions. Why do some people create their own mysticism, chants to gods they can’t pretend exist? We know that everything clean and bright is a lie told with the truth. We need the noise, because going inside only means finding deeper places to get lost. We want spirit, because we want to be ourselves, but we need the noise to protect us, because knowing yourself is just another word for death.

I’m writing this on an intercontinental flight, riding a claustrophobic capsule on the edge of infinity, headed far away from home for a long time, away from a home that becomes more an object of desperate grasps for security as it begins to crumble, comes undone — in short, as people die. If Heavy Deeds was a gentle flirtation with the infinity inside — the brain-space wedged open by repetition and entrancement — then Off Duty crosses the black edge of the exterior: the point where there’s no “us” because there are no words, just the pulse of a dying, distant star, surrounded by spasmodic wails.

Links: Sun Araw - Woodsist

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