The Red Krayola

Lounge Ax, January 13

How does one remain avant-garde for 28 years? The Red Krayola has been a flickering leading light of rock’s cutting edge since releasing its first album in 1967. The Parable of Arable Land’s psychedelic music launched free improvisation, then primarily the currency of new jazz, into rock and roll’s vocabulary. Band leader (and sole remaining founding member) Mayo Thompson has taken pains not to repeat himself on ten subsequent albums. He has periodically renewed the group by recruiting collaborators, often associating himself with a preexisting group or music community that is itself breaking new ground.

Thompson’s first collaborative reinvention occurred during the mid-70s, when he worked with a trans-Atlantic conceptual-art collective called Art & Language. They made several films and videos and one album, Corrected Slogans, which introduced history and left-leaning politics into Thompson’s music. In 1979, while based in London, he worked with Cleveland’s “avant-garage” rock band Pere Ubu on the Red Krayola’s record Soldier Talk. He subsequently played guitar on two of Ubu’s records. At that time Thompson was working for the Rough Trade record company, and the next version of the Red Krayola was composed of musicians drawn from Rough Trade bands whose records he’d produced. Thompson spent the late 80s working in the visual arts in Germany, where he met his next musical partner, a German synthesizer player and painter named Albert Oehlen. When Thompson returned to the United States last year he selected Chicago musicians and a Chicago record company to give life to the Red Krayola’s newest incarnation.

The recent national attention paid to Chicago’s music community has focused on groups and individuals that conform to traditional musical formats: Liz Phair fits the singer-songwriter mold, and Smashing Pumpkins, Red Red Meat, Veruca Salt, and the Jesus Lizard are all four-piece guitar-rock bands with easily identifiable antecedents. But recordings by Tortoise, Brise-Glace, and Gastr del Sol offer evidence that avant-garde rock is thriving here as well. The last band is especially noteworthy because its members make up the Red Krayola’s newest lineup. Gastr del Sol is a collaboration between two multiinstrumentalists, the academically trained sound scientist Jim O’Rourke and postpunk rocker David Grubbs, with occasional help from journeyman percussionist John McEntire. On their Mirror Repair and Crookt, Crackt, or Fly records (both on Drag City Records) Gastr del Sol have mapped out a territory bounded by austere compositions, twisted rocky riffs, static instrumental textures, and angular, thorny improvisations. The Red Krayola is Thompson’s first long-player since 1989 (and his first U.S. release since 1970).

The Red Krayola’s sound has varied widely over the years, but Thompson’s distinctive voice and guitar playing have always been immediately identifiable. His voice is high, quavery, and resolutely off key, but it is nevertheless a remarkable instrument. He is a master of phrasing, nimbly negotiating tricky rhythms and irregular song structures with ease. His vocal delivery suits his lyrics; on the new album’s “Rapspierre,” a dense Marxist social critique, he is by turns professorial, chiding, and sorrowful. The perpetual catch in his throat emphasizes the song’s outrage and regret. Thompson’s guitar playing is precise, clipped, and acerbic; he’s prone to off-kilter melodic runs that take the songs on unexpected tangents.

The Red Krayola is the most guitar-heavy record Thompson’s ever recorded. He and Grubbs, joined by guitarists Tom Watson and Stephen Prina, pack terse, interlocking riffs around McEntire’s nimble drumming on the album’s 17 brief tunes. There is no bassist–the thick tone would only get in the way of the other instruments. Jim O’Rourke and Albert Oehlen contribute squiggly synthesizer noises, buzzing around and commenting on the guitar parts rather than fulfilling the traditional keyboard role of filling up harmonic space.

At the Red Krayola’s recent Lounge Ax performance the guitars, played by Thompson, Grubbs, and Watson, were even more dominant. O’Rourke’s synthesizer was relegated to embellishing the guitar racket. Drummer George Hurley, filling the drum seat that McEntire vacated to tour Europe with his regular combos Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, was fully up to the task of driving the band with his splashy fills and all-over-the-kit attack. The group was astonishingly tight and controlled. But where a conventional rock band would show off its chops with a string of tedious instrumental solos, the Red Krayola’s players used their virtuosity to creatively build curveball dynamics into the songs, which sped up, slowed down, or went sideways. With the three guitarists playing big power chords in unison, “Dairy Maids” almost sounded like a punk rock classic, but unpredictable halts undercut its momentum.

Unwilling to merely rock out, Thompson and his band tested the boundaries of rock music. On “People Get Ready (The Train’s Not Coming)” Grubbs bashed out a mutated blues riff, insistently holding to it while the other players did their best to pull it apart. He repeated it endlessly, eschewing the key change that one could usually expect to resolve the music’s tension. Instead, Thompson intoned the song’s title over it, dryly mocking the creative stasis that created that expectation. Grubbs’s extroverted stage presence, however, was entirely unironic. He bopped to the music, ranging about the stage with a smile on his face, evidently happy to be there. Thompson’s sure grasp of dynamics kept his critical distance from being alienating; he followed a free improvisation with “Mistakes of Trotsky,” a stately, swinging, and very accessible song. Throughout the night the Red Krayola juggled subverted conventions and satisfying payoffs. After 28 years, with a boost from some young blood, Mayo Thompson’s still ahead of the crowd.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra E. Levie.