The avant metal/doom jazz experimental trio Unconscious Collective is back with their second full-length, the impossibly retro-progressive PLEISTOCENE MOON, putting the best parts of Sun Ra, the Mothers, Mile Davis, Crawling Chaos and Captain Beefheart in a bag, shaking them up and dumping them out onto two slabs of 12 inch vinyl (wax, actually, but… you know what I’m talking about) that are uniquely their own. This is some seriously brain-damaged stuff! I like it… I like it a lot!
The first three minutes of the title track is every camper’s nightmare, with various animal and… uh… other noises (I’m thinking RACE WITH THE DEVIL… look it up). It leads into an even creepier Gothic fever dream, featuring ominous bass and drum parts (courtesy of Aaron Gonzalez and Stefan Gonzalez, respectively), a scratchy, atmospheric guitar (provided by Gregg Prickett) and other deeply disturbing noises and effects. Simply stated, “Pleistocene Moon” is the soundtrack to the scariest horror movie never made. “Tribe Apini” is fueled by a deep, sonorous bass, some jazzy drumwork and some avant guitar noodling with subtle flamenco undertones. Frank Zappa woulda been proud! There’s a jazzy vibe to “Requiem For Biodiversity.” The first section is a plaintive, emotive tenor sax thing by Mike Forbes. Aaron chimes in with a great bass line and a cool bowed acoustic bass (like a cello, no?) part. The track is very much in the free-form jazz vein that eventually turns into manic Motorhead Sherwood skronks. Prickett’s feedback and echo drenched guitar during the first 150 seconds of “Kotsoteka” comes off like soundtrack music for a spaghetti western starring face-eating demons. From that point, it’s a fairly straight forward rocker with a light jazz glaze.
“Is the Spine the Dividing Line?” has an odd, but appealing jazz time signature, with requisite great work from the rhythm section and minimally intrusive guitar and horn noodling to carry the melody, which is quite reminiscent of Flesh Eaters’ magnificent “Satan’s Stomp.” The final few minutes turn rather ominous, reiterating the haunted foreboding of the first half of the record. A squalling stun guitar and solid bass/sax interplay informs “Methane Rising,” the shortest track on the album. The tune is a wicked, violent improv of noise and an unlikely groove that slowly falls apart in a deconstructive heap with Aaron plucking single notes to the fade. “The Transformation of Matter” is an almost normal sounding jazz tune with plenty of soloing and adventurous swerves and bumps along the way. The final track, “Greedy Tongue” is a percussion piece – not a drum solo – with Stefan incorporating a coil spring and other, more standard percussive instruments and running them through a blender for an other-worldly sound. Guitar and bass scratch and claw just below the surface as the disembodied voices from the first tune reappear, adding to the luncay. With the track clocking in at over eight minutes, you may think that it will get really stale fairly quickly; far from it, Stefan engages from the get-go and keeps it interesting ’til the end. The same can be said for the whole record, as five of the tracks come in at ten minutes or more. If you miss the adventurous improvisational aspects of yesterday’s musical innovators, PLEISTOCENE MOON should put that shiver back in your spine.The album is available in a downlaodable form or as a two record set from tofucarnage.com.
(PURPLE PYRAMID RECORDS/CLEOPATRA RECORDS; reissue 2014, original digital release 2010)
Approximately a decade-and-a-half after their last true record (new material, rather than collected works or decades-old live tapes), and even longer since the involvement of a majority of the original driving forces within the group, Amon Duul II returned in 2010 with BEE AS SUCH, a self-released downloadable album harkening back to the beginning… experimental and trippy sound pastiches with transcendently hippie-chic lyricism. The original plans for the album included a physical release shortly after the digital files were posted; that scenario never materialized… until now, as the Purple Pyramid arm of Cleopatra Records has finally released the retitled DUULIRIUM on vinyl and CD. Rather like the debut of their forebears (the communal-minded Amon Duul), BEE AS SUCH seemed to be recorded as one long jam session and then edited and cut down into four separate and highly distinct tunes. I mention that because the individual tracks tend to start and end either in the middle of a note or a piece of lyric; even if it appears that the splices fit together seamlessly (as with the first two cuts), when you try to edit the two songs together, it just doesn’t work.
Amon Duul II, circa 2009 (Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, Jan Kahlert, Chris Karrer, John Weinzierl, Gerard Carbonell, Lothar Meid) (uncredited photo)
The disjointedness starts at point zero of the first track, “On the Highway” (originally called “Mambo La Libertad”), as the track seems to pick up right in the middle of a lyric. The song itself is all weird, hippie redux, but is not unappealing in the least. The vocals, which I assume are by Chris Karrer and Renate Knaup-Krotenschwanz, comes across as a rather sloppy (though, again, not unappealing) duet between Don Van Vliet and Edith Bunker (the character, not Jean Stapleton, who actually had a great voice). As off-kilter as this assessment makes it sound, “Mambo La Libertad” gets the record off to a great start. The track ends mid-drumbeat, with the second cut picking up somewhere later in the same beat; “Du Kommst Ins Heim” is total mind-warping Krautrock of the highest order. Continuing to mine a plethora of vocal styles, the (again, an assumption on my part) male part comes across as David Byrne, circa early Talking Heads. The same vocals that sounded like Edith are here, too, but much more… in tune, while spastic yodeling, operatic yowls and squalling cat mewls mingle with the odd violin scrape. We actually dig this one muchly as it totally epitomizes the word “trippy.”
“Standing In the Shadow” finds Nina Hagen and Mac Rebennack vamping their way through a wicked, groove-based improvisation, fronting a Germanic Funkadelic with Lothar Meid (in the role of Bootsy) funkin’ things up on the bass guitar, while John Weinzierl adds some insane Bernie Worrell style synthesizer effects. At less than eight-and-a-half minutes, “Stil Standing” (the cut’s original title) is the shortest track on DUULIRIUM/BEE AS SUCH. In contrast, the final piece clocks in at nearly thirty minutes; listed on DUULIRIUM as two separate entities, “Back To the Rules” and “Walking To the Park,” the songs were presented under the title “Psychedelic Suite” on the original digital files of BEE AS SUCH. A mindnumbing crawl of a slow tune, “Back To the Rules” occupies the first ten-and-a-half minutes of this musical beast. Standing as a stark example of gaunt minimalism, the oddly languid pace manifests itself as a definite plus rather than a minus; the musicians almost break free at the 8:45 mark only to be reined back in by the burdensome art-damage of the whole thing. The final minutes of the piece does pick up the pace, though not much, as bassist Meid and percussionists Danny Fichelscher and Jan Kahlert drive the tune toward a real psychedelic work-out leading into a bizarre little interlude before heading full-bore into “Walking To the Park” at around the 18:30 mark. Suddenly, a leisurely stroll (a virtual Thorazine shuffle) becomes a frenzied run, perhaps as the couple in the narrative realizes that the park may not be the safest place to be. There are some great guitar runs during this section of the track, really the first time either Weinzierl or Karrer have exploited the instrument to its fullest extent on the entire record. Likewise, Knaup-Krotenschwanz delivers the album’s best performance here, falling somewhere between early Toyah Willcox, mid-period Kate Bush and latter day Marianne Faithfull. Twenty-six minutes may seem a tad like overkill but, if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with what is an epic masterpiece of the genre that has come to be known as “Krautrock.”
Athens, Georgia (home of the University of Georgia) has long been a hotbed of musical creativity, fostering such acts as REM, the Olivia Tremor Control, the B-52’s, Brantley Gilbert, Drive-By Truckers amid a roll call far to long to mention. Add Axxa/Abraxas, the music and art project of Ben Asbury, to that list. A demo of Asbury’s multi-media presentation found it’s way to the offices of Captured Tracks (home to Beach Fossils, Widowspeak and the reformed Medicine), leading to the release of AXXA/ABRAXAS. Asbury handles vocals, synthesizer/keyboards/noises and guitar, while the rhythm section consists of Aaron Neveu on drums and bassist Jarvis Taveniere (who also produced), both from the indie band, Woods. Asbury has a raft of influences, all of which, thankfully, he wears on his sleeve. The ten track album blends and morphs influences and styles into unique tunes that can only be described as “Axxa/Abraxas.” Late ’60s psychedelia collides with Americana and Goth is filtered through sunshine pop and everything is drenched in an electronic squall that sometimes challenges the listener’s patience. I advise you to hang in there, though, as the end result is quite listenable and utterly amazing.
Axxa/Abraxas (publicity photo)
In an album filled with highlights, here are the ones that stand out to me: “Ryan Michalak (Is Coming To Town)” is the album opener. It features an atmospheric, movie soundtrack intro before turning into a pounding psychedelic number, with echo-laden vocals and reverb-heavy guitar. A buoyant bass anchors “Beyond the Wind,” a kind of shimmery Goth thing. “So Far Away” is my favorite track at the moment. Imagine if the Partridge Family or Bobby Sherman dropped acid and asked John Cipollina to play guitar on one of their poppy sunshine confections. The results are loud and awesome. There is a sort of pseudo-psycho country vibe happening with “On the Run,” which features some oddly processed vocals to heighten the weird factor. One of the most straight forward tracks here is the single, “I Almost Fell… ,” a jangle pop offering that sounds a lot like:
At some shows I’ve been to in recent years, particularly smaller ones, I’ve looked at the audience as much as the performers, trying to gauge people’s reactions and suss out what kind of experience they were having. When you’re dealing with a noncommercial act like Swans, the Michael Gira-led entity that inhabits one end of the post-punk spectrum, you can’t help wondering about the fans and why this kinda assaultive sonic maelstrom appeals to them. This is not to pass judgment, as I AM such a fan. It’s just… why? How can long, discordant, punishing slabs of dark drone and indecipherable lyrics be life-affirming? Do you leave such an experience in a good mood, and just say to your concert-going pals, “Man, that was great!” the way you would after a normal concert? I dunno. But I did indeed utter “That was pretty amazing” to MY companion for the night, and I did experience SOME kind of catharsis. But I’m not sure what it was. I do know I won’t forget it.
Xiu Xiu (uncredited photo from June 20, 2014)
I wasn’t overly familiar with Swans going in; I’d heard a few bits and pieces, and read some articles about them. But never had a chance to experience their sound up close before. Warning was given via a sign on the door that the concert was going to be extremely loud (helpful hint, that!), so ear plugs were clearly in order. But actually, I’ve been to louder, even though it WAS a punishing volume throughout. Things kicked off with a bizarre half hour opening stint by an incarnation of Xiu Xiu that included only founder Jamie Stewart. I’d been looking forward to hearing some songs from Xiu Xiu’s early CDs that I happened to own, but it was not to be. Stewart sat at a synth console and delivered a piercing monolithic tone that gradually got louder and louder, and gradually added other drone elements until it evolved into a squall of noisy dark ambient matter that was alternatingly hypnotic and tedious. He never said a word and never looked up, and I wouldn’t have even known this had anything to do with the Xiu Xiu I once listened to unless I’d done some research the next day. One thing’s for sure; you don’t see this kinda thing on stage in Saint Louis very often.
Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)
The wait for Swans was short and, it’s pretty clear when you lay eyes (and ears) on a crazed codger like Michael Gira that you’re in the presence of a twisted original. It seems almost irrelevant to mention song titles, because at a show like this, only hardcore fans would care about such a thing. Swans “tunes” are really long, really repetitive and singularly immersive; variety is not what you’re in for at a show like this. But, okay… “Frankie M” and “A Little God in My Hands” were the first two tunes. Layered gongs kicked off the former, and your ears had no choice but to instantly surrender to the onslaught. I was distracted almost immediately by a comely young woman swaying to the sound, yes, swaying to a sound that most of my friends would’ve bolted from within minutes. Heck, I thought girls liked dancing to stuff with a beat and a sing-along chorus. But damn, even the weirdest and most anti-commercial of bands gotta have their female followers, I suppose. “ …God… ” began with a slashing, repeated chord or whatever you’d call the combination of tones that kicked this one off. I was reminded of Eno’s oblique strategy card, “Repetition is a form of change,” a notion that Eno pioneered and that Swans have seemingly taken to another level. No one would be able to lose themselves in this kind of sonic overload if it was truly just one continuous, unvarying tone but, the fact is, Gira’s band conjure a gargantuan symphony of strident yet structured noisetronica that is ferociously willful and ultimately transfixing. The crowd was apparently riveted, although one girl sitting next to me was peacefully reading a paperback novel half the time, and I wondered about her temperament. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a single page of any book with this kinda music in the background.
Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)
Gira has a trademark way of holding his hands out to each side, shaking them a little, symmetrically, sometimes with eyes closed. He’s a curious figurehead with his long hair and piercing gaze, and seems genuinely appreciative that he gets to do this sort of thing. My companion and I chatted about how this sort of music can only exist and, in fact, progress, if its makers are utterly serious and committed to what they do. Not an issue at all with Swans. The cacophonous “The Apostate” was next, and it was thunderous, with atonal chord play, primal sludgy ambience and a sound that struck my ears as “Da U WOOM/ Da U WOOM!” It went on for a long, long time and, again, I couldn’t help watching the Ready Room patrons, most of whom watched with rapt attention and, a few of whom attempted to move their bodies in one way or another to this crazed sound. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of thing every day, but experiencing it live was a pretty singular experience. Something almost approaching “tonal variety” came with the song “Just A Little Boy,” which made me think of the eerie Talking Heads song, “The Overload.” Straight-up dirge-y angst, the lyrics go, “Now I sleep in the belly of woman/And I sleep in the belly of man/And I sleep in the belly of rhythm/And I sleep in the belly of love.” Maybe not manifesto territory here, but Gira is clearly saying SOMETHING, and trying to do so in the context of a long, assaultive drone makes it brave and interesting. It was actually one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the evening.
Swans live, May 28, 2014 (photo credit: ANDREW NOVELL)
Fire trucks appeared in fromt of the Ready Room two different times, once early in the evening, and once during “Don’t Go,” when the flashing red lights got the attention of anyone near the windows (including yours truly) and made me wonder whether a fire code violation had occurred, or whether the crew outside had been tipped off about something that needed to be “watched” at this show. No doubt the attendance was amazing; the line waiting to get into the RR was thrice longer than I had been anticipating. Gira gets good publicity. Anyway, the sound slabs during this number were particularly intense, with two or three bass notes played insistently while granite chunks of guitar, percussion and keys were hurled out into the crowd with abandon. My mind wandered (and a few Shock Top drafts added splendidly to the mood), and I thought that if Gira’s story was ever made into a movie, either Michael Madsen or Guy Pearce would have to be cast as the lead. Scruffy intensity was definitely called for. The one-two climactic punch of “Bring the Sun/Black Hole Man” was sometimes evocative and haunting, sometimes poundingly nasty, with lyrics almost impossible to decipher (although I’d swear I heard the phrase “Joseph is riding” once or twice). But, hey, lyrics are not the point of a Swans song. Immersive surrender to the darkest of dark waves is more in order. And, actually, I left in admiration for the perverse, primal simplicity of what Swans have to offer. Though there is little pleasure or comfort to be had in a show like this, the catharsis is real, and the visceral release is palpable. It’s important for music to stake out EDGES to explore, places where few dare go and declare, “Okay, this is what’s out here in THIS place, check it out if you’re so inclined.” I’m grateful to have experienced that thing that Swans do, even if I’ll be scratching my head for a long time over what it means, and how that girl could’ve gotten through a good portion of her book with Swans as the background soundtrack. Each to their own in this world, truly…
I’ve always said that if something doesn’t sound just like something else I’ve heard, I will listen to it extra attentively. I suppose that’s one of my guiding MOs as a music writer. This peculiar Italian outfit, Father Murphy, sounds like almost NOTHING else. So I gave them an especially close listen and was rather stunned by what I heard. It’s some kind of nightmarish cinematic new-ambient drone/squonk punctuated by purposeful chants and dialogue, pounding percussion and, surprisingly, space to reflect. A couple of sentences in the press material provided for this four-song EP provided a compelling way in; the music is described as “the sound of the Catholic sense of guilt, a downward spiral aiming at the bottom of the hollow and then digging even deeper.” So, a party record, then? Not hardly, unless you want to clear the party quickly and be left only with the open-minded, contemplative types you prefer hanging out with anyway. This is the kind of music you experience when you’re in a certain weird mood, and want to literally be pulled out of your reality and maybe plunged into the deepest well of contradictory, destructive human behavior, to hear what the soundtrack to such might be.
Father Murphy (photo credit: ELENA TONIOLO)
On “Let the Wrong Rise With You,” it means you get a dark, ominous, machine-like drone which is soon hijacked by abrasive industrial percussion that could be the soundtrack to a terrorist group of unknown origin suddenly marching into a village (I couldn’t help thinking of Boko Haram, actually, who have been so much in the news lately). This shifts into a mid section of distorted horns or the like with a sinister drone underneath, and then a third section of plainly heard single keyboard tones that are nearly melodic in nature, with a bit of percussion here and there. Whatever the Reverend Freddie Murphy and Chiara Lee (the two singer/multi-instrumentalists responsible for all this) are up to here, it certainly has few reference points. Apparently, Julian Cope and Deerhoof are fans; the latter’s Greg Saunier produced the EP. And, Simon Reynolds has helpfully dubbed this “Italian occult psychedelia.” Certainly you’ll think of occulty things when listening to “They Will All Fail You,” which begins with the sound of glass shattering and soon treats you to the sound of various disturbed voices yelling, one of which sounds like “Trial, trial, trial,” over and over, which may indeed be what some listeners go through when subjected to this. A pounding sound, a male voice yelling a word that sounds like “Horror” repeatedly, and a dark ambient drone will make you think you’re in a very bad place, indeed – the kind of thing that happens when you watch a foreign horror movie. Children may have been harmed in the making of this music, or perhaps this is music ABOUT children being harmed… there’s that Catholic guilt thing again, I suppose. “Despite All the Grief” managed to surprise me even in the context of what preceded it, due to what is a relatively quiet low-frequency rumble/drone that is only interrupted by maybe 28 seconds of industrial-strength clanging, reminiscent of the music in the first Bartertown scenes in MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME. There is something utterly willful about the way these tracks are arranged and performed; a potent aesthetic is at work. And, listening to samples of previous work by this group, such as 2012’s ANYWAY, YOUR CHILDREN WILL DENY IT, online only reveals that something quite original and determinedly provocative is happening here.
You’ve heard the phrase “uneasy listening?” This is THAT. There is nothing cheery or comforting about Father Murphy, but lordy, if you have a taste for dark, immersive, non personality-based cine-music, this may be something to lose yourself in. Best recommended if you’re a LAPSED Catholic or “other” in the religious column, though. If you’re still going to mass and taking communion, well, you’re liable to head straight for confession after hearing this stuff.
So… ya say that you were the only guy on your block (in your town?… in your state?) that bought Lou Reed’s METAL MACHINE MUSIC and actually played it more than once and – above all else – understood it? Okay, tough guy, have I got a release for you – the latest in minimalist metal from Adel Souto, a self-described “writer, musician and troublemaker,” whose musical nom de plume is 156. TAKING A LOOK AT A MOMENT LOST has a pots and pans, anvils and chains, everything-in kind of sound, very percussive in the best possible all-metallic way. This is the heaviest metal I’ve heard since “Weapon Training,” the opening track on Throbbing Gristle’s THEE PSYCHICK SACRIFICE in 1982!
156 mastermind Adel Souto (uncredited photo)
Souto’s web-site (www.adelsouto.com) calls his 156 alter ego an “industrial junkyard outfit.” Okay… works for me. Whatever you wanna call it, TAKING A LOOK… is totally abrasive and gratingly beautiful. “Fading Images” starts things off with tinkling chimes, reverberated and phased into a ringing background drone, with a creep-inducing disembodied chant that may keep you up way past your bedtime. On “And the Crowd Calls For His Head,” the drone takes on the wail of a ship’s call horn, while the percussive impetus seems to be coming from finger cymbals and the hinges of large metal doors. “Expand and Contract” takes the previous track and ratchets the noise up to 11 before morphing into “Leaving Without Dinner,” a more sedate track, with chimes, gongs, cymbals and what appears to be rattling bones. For only the second time, the sound barrier is broken on “Blasting Away,” with what sounds like a kettle drum or large trash barrel crashing through the less-than-two-minute piece. “Compression” could be the same instrument but, as the name implies, run through a (possibly analog) sound compressor. The dynamics of the track lay within the silences. The final tracks work as sort of triptych of loud/soft/softer blasts of droning background noises and clangorous percussion. “The Midnight Hour (May Day)” sounds like metal-on-metal, run through that compressor with echo effects seemingly melting the “beats” together in a hypnotic dissonance. “About To Kowtow” is quieter and sounds very much like an anvil, a dishwasher and a metal sander vying for attention under an incessant headache-inducing whistle. “The Midnight Hour (All Souls Day)” is, perhaps, the quietest track here, starting with the sounds of what could be religious censers being lit by matches before erupting into a dive-bombing white noise cacophony of cicadas.
So, if you’ve got the guts for this kind of music (or if you’re an adventurous soul), you’d better get your order in fast… TAKING A LOOK AT A MOMENT LOST is released in a limited edition of 100 here: store.chondriticsound.com. Don’t dawdle!
(COCTEAU DISCS/ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS/PORTRAIT RECORDS; reissue 2013, original release 1986)
I fell in love with Bill Nelson, his songwriting, his voice and his guitar playing in 1977, with LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE, the fantastic live release from his then-current band, Be Bop Deluxe. In the early ’80s, I rediscovered Bill through a pair of commissioned works for the stage – DAS KABINETT (THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), both for the Yorkshire Actors Company – and 1982’s THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART); the second commissioned piece was released as a bonus record with THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS… and stands in stark contrast to the album proper’s poppy New Romanticism. I eventually discovered Nelson’s Red Noise project during a trip to the used record bins at a local shop; I initially passed on those releases as virtually every review I read at the time called it – and I’m paraphrasing here – “A disappointing attempt at electronic dance music.” Anyway, after Red Noise, finding a new Bill Nelson record in the hinterlands of Illinois became an effort in futility; now, nearly thirty years after Red Noise, comes the expanded edition of one of the man’s most well-received records, GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST (called ON A BLUE WING in North America and Australia). The new edition features a remaster of the original ten-song UK version of the record, as well as a second disc featuring the two EPs culled from the same recording sessions: WILDEST DREAMS and LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT.
Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)
There seems to be a vague theme running through …HOLY GHOST… , a theme that reminds me of Sunday mornings in a small country town or village. “Suvasini” is a short, introductory ambient piece with a nice jazzy guitar running throughout; it leads into “Contemplation,” which features a snaky kind of guitar, some mid-’80s poppy keyboards and a slinky bass line (courtesy of Iain Denby). Bill’s voice has always been sort of an acquired taste; here, he straddles the stylistic line that falls somewhere between David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. The song itself is very poetic and lyrically dense (as in, a lot of words). The only part I find objectionable is a sax part that tends to ruin the feel of the whole track. “Theology” is closer to the esoteric near-rock of some of Be Bop Deluxe’s more experimental stuff. The number rather reminds me of solo John Foxx or, maybe, a type of Enoesque Ambient rock. Preston Heyman adds an industrial (as in, machinery) percussion thing that is very cool. There’s more of that industrial sound happening on “Wildest Dreams,” a happy kinda tune that also tosses marimba into the percussion mix. You know, I really like Nelson’s more experimental pop stuff but, I gotta say… I really miss his exceptional guitar playing on some of this material; 1980’s style keyboards just don’t do it for me, though there is a great violin solo from Peter Greeves. “Lost In Your Mystery” could have been an outtake from Bowie’s LET’S DANCE sessions. The music has a very Asiatic (in reference to the Continent, not the band) and pre-programmed (it all sounds synthesized) texture and feel; it’s a very laid back song with an equally laid back vocal from Bill.
In its original form, you could listen to those first five songs before being forced to flip the record over to hear the rest of the music. That’s the way I’ve chosen to review the first disc of this reissue, picking up here with the music on Side Two. “Rise Like a Fountain” comes across as an Adrian Belew/King Crimson kind of thing… if Crimson were an ambient band. Iain Denby chimes in with a great (fretless?) bass part, plus… there’s an actual guitar solo (short though it is). There’s an unfortunate BEVERLY HILLS COP/Harold Faltermeyer synth vibe (sorry, folks… great movie, horrible theme song) happening on “Age of Reason.” Nelson’s vocals are pretty good but, I’m not sure they actually save this thing, especially once the Clarence Clemons-like sax bleats (provided by William Gregory and Dick Morrisey) come in. Simply stated, the tune comes off as nothing more than dance music for left-footed mathletes. “The Hidden Flame” continues the dance floor goofiness, though some nifty processed piano and some funky lead guitar somewhat negate the damage. As always, Bill’s vocals are a highlight, as is the stinging guitar solo toward the end. “Because of You” is up next. Now, this is more like it: Great guitar, great lyrics (“Nailed to the cross of love/Because of you”), funky bass; this number could easily have worked as a Power Station song. The album ends with “Pansophia,” a very short (less than a minute) nylon-string guitar solo laced with minimal processed piano and ambient noises. So, in the harsh reflective light of nearly three decades, the first half of GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS fares much better than the second half, though there’s enough meat on the bones to enjoy this rather dated blast from the past, mostly because… well… Bill Nelson!
Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)
And, so, we’re on to the second disc of this collection as we ponder the question: What would a “Deluxe Edition” (or reissue of any kind, really) be without “bonus material?” That material usually manifests as a vault-clearing effort to delve into the artist’s psyche at the time of the recording of the feted release. Thankfully, the minutia that practice entails is eschewed for a more slim-lined package that includes the two EP releases associated with the 1986 album… a total of eleven tracks. Even though the sequencing here is kinda wonky, for the purposes of this review, our exploration will begin with the music from the first of these releases, LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT. Following the first cut from the later WILDEST DREAMS record, the seven tracks from …SPANGLED MOMENT – five of which were issued as part of the original English cassette version of the …HOLY GHOST,,, record – follow in sequence. It should be noted that this release is more of a “mini-album,” clocking in at a little less than a half hour. “Heart and Soul” is another synthesized, mid-tempo dance tune, featuring sax and clarinet solos from Ian Nelson. This is probably as stuck-in-your-head catchy as you’re likely to hear from Bill Nelson. Nelson’s minimalist approach to guitar-playing is once again the touch point for the title track, which is awash in various keyboard texturing, a slinky bass part from Denby and another Morrisey sax solo; the track is… okay… just not great. Though brighter in tone, “Feast of Lanterns” comes off feeling like an extension of the main album’s “Pansophia.” This longer investigation of that tune’s themes features some backward guitar alongside some well-placed harmonic guitar swells and ambient keyboard for a little added atmosphere. The result is quite a pretty piece of music.
Bill Nelson (publicity photo)
“Illusions of You” has a nice band vibe, very happy and bright. Bill’s guitar is more prominent here than elsewhere, which is a welcome sound; everything seems to come together on this track… except for Ian Nelson’s sax solo, which somehow seems terribly out of place here. With an almost somber kinda Peter Gabriel feel that belies a sprightly Denby bass line and Nelson’s vibrant vocal performance, “Word For Word” is a slow-build non-ballad. A neat Spanish guitar solo gives way to one of Bill’s trademark ambient electric guitar solos. “Finks and Stooges of the Spirit,” besides having one of the greatest titles ever, is quite possibly the best tune from this period of Nelson’s career. It’s an electronic rocker, with a dense instrumental bed menacing just below vocals that border on the dispassionate (think Gary Numan). Since I’ve been a little hard on him, I must compliment Ian Nelson’s woodwinds; they are an integral part of this wall-of-sound production. Bill’s reverb-drenched solo leads into a short duet with Ian’s clarinet, which really adds to the (intentionally) disjointed feel of the number. Like the closer to Side One of the original LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT release, “Nightbirds” closed out Side Two – and, indeed, the entire record – in similar fashion: It’s another short ambient soundscape, this time featuring Iain Denby on bass. For pure atmospheric effect, it certainly does a nice job, as it leaves the listener yearning for just a bit more.
Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)
Now, back to the top, with the “Wild Mix” of the WILDEST DREAMS’ title track. You know how I feel about remixes… don’t like ‘em. However, this one seems to have a little more of that industrial percussion that Preston Heyman brought to the original album version, as well as a more prominent bass line and… wait! Is that an extended violin solo from Peter Greeves? Okay… I may actually prefer this version to the one found on GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS. “Self Impersonation” (or, “Self Impersonisation,” as it was originally titled), which crops up after “Nightbirds,” is another ambient thing with some heavy percussion aspects (this time, by Bill himself, who plays everything on this cut) and just enough soloing and noodling throughout to remind us that Bill Nelson coulda been a big shot rock star guitarist. Up next is another version of “Wildest Dreams.” The single mix is basically the album track cut by a few seconds and featuring a more vibrant high-end (for airplay, doncha know?). It doesn’t sound too bad, removed, as it is, from the entirety of the album. “The Yo-Yo Dyne” is another keyboard and percussion piece, with a cool pipe organ thing happening. Once more, this is all Bill, all the time. The song has an odd, Reggae feel to it – not that Reggae is odd, just in this setting. A nice way to end the record, I suppose, but a tad too repetitive to be allowed to go on for five minutes. As mentioned above, this may not have been my favorite period in Bill Nelson’s career, but there is enough meat on the bone to intrigue.
(DIVINE RECORDS, UK; 1997) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS (UPDATE BELOW)
The entity known far and wide (and just around the corner) as Ant-Bee is actually a mad genius named Billy James, who has managed to cozy up to an unimaginable group of rock stars, including Gong’s Daevid Allen, every member of the original Alice Cooper with a name other than Alice Cooper (including the late Glen Buxton), and a slue of ex-Zappa sidemen who occasionally go by the name “Grandmothers” (Bunk Gardner, Motorhead Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, and Don Preston, among others). James himself is sort of a rock everyman: He plays drums, guitar, keyboards, bass; he writes… music and books (he’s written or co-written books about/with Peter Banks, Michael Bruce, Grand Funk Railroad, and – his latest – Todd Rundgren); he produces and, occasionally, he slices and dices (just like Sean “P. Doh-Wah Diddy-Daddy” Combs, only with talent); he promotes other musician’s releases. And, regardless of the involvement of the ex-Mothers, he has a definite Frank Zappa sensibility toward songwriting, production, and arrangement. Listen, for instance, to the album’s opener, “Snorks and Wheezes,” with its bizarre time changes, obtuse vocals in a psuedo-doo-wop middle section, and Ruth Underwood-style percussion, and tell me that you are not having a late ’60s-early ’70s Mothers flashback.
“Child of the Moon” is a pretty straight take on the old Jagger-Richard B-side, with some nice orchestration and vocals. It also features some nice acoustic work. Later, James and his uber-minions give the same treatment to Mike Nesmith’s amazing psychedelic country hit, “Love Is Only Sleeping.” There’s a wicked guitar solo – performed by Roy Herman – that weaves its way throughout “Love Is Only Sleeping,” adding to the overall psychedelic feel of the tune. Again, like Zappa, compositions/ideas tend to run together. The triptych nestled between “Child of the Moon” and “Love Is Only Sleeping” wanders between lunatic rave-ups (with a couple of wild backward guitar solos – which always seem to sound more impressive than they probably are – and a percussive coda repeated from “Snorks and Wheezes” on “Blew a Banana Thru the Sun”) and introspective balladry (complete with harpsicord, gongs, and lilting vocals on “The One Who Is Gold”) and back again (“Silicone Hump,” an ancient Don Preston piece of Turtles-esque lunacy). The album’s centerpiece, “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is a composition in four parts, encompassing Harvey Bainbridge’s (he of Hawkwind fame) “The Swan and the Horseshoe” and Neal Smith’s (he of Alice Cooper fame) “The Platinum God” sandwiched between original James music. The nearly ten minute piece continues LUNAR MUZIK’s thematic make-up: Pretty, almost pastoral vocals interspersed with manic percussion and noisy rock guitar. Bainbridge’s part is an almost ambient synthesizer wash, leading back to the main theme before giving way to “The Platinum God,” which features the four ex-Coopers – Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and some trippy guitar from Glen Buxton, undoubtedly one of the last things he recorded before his death.
Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)
The album ends – much as it began – with songs running together, themes repeated and overlapping into each other. “Diva Gliss (Are You Sirius?),” which flows out of the final movement of “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is by Daevid Allen and features him on guitar; the tune leads – seamlessly – into “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” a return, as it were, to “By-and-By… ,” which leads into a Michael Bruce/Billy James composition called “Return of the Titanic Overture.” The piece features themes and pieces of music culled from the very first Alice Cooper album, PRETTIES FOR YOU. It, like “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” features Bruce’s guitar work. “Son of Snorks and Wheezes” closes the proceedings with an even more bizarre take on the opening track. It features most of the Grandmothers, with Jimmy Carl Black’s prominent Indian chants and attempts to extort money and beer from the producer. Boys and girls, this is the type of inspired lunacy that one could regularly expect to find in the record bins as the 1960s phased into the 1970s: Nearly virtuoso performances coupled with adventurous arrangements, melding rock with jazz, doo-wop, classical instrumentation, and big-band phrasing. Though the album has been out for awhile, it’s so hard to come by that I only recently acquired this CD-R copy from James himself and I just had to tell you about it. Oh, yeah… the album artwork is by some guy named Syd Barrett! (Check out Billy James’ “Web Bizarre” at www.ant-bee.com and, if you’re really nice to him, you may be able to pick up your very own copy of LUNAR MUZIK… before it’s too late!)
(UPDATE) Gonzo Multimedia’s reissue of LUNAR MUZIK was released in June 2014. For ordering information, check Billy’s site.