Arthur Doyle Plays and Sings From the Songbook Volume One
Blue Humans Featuring
Experience the Magic
Borbetomagus (“The Black Album”)
Little Treatise on Morals
Sweet music can be OK, but nothing helps music get over that hedge of mere OKness faster than noise. Noise as a musical element is hardly monolithic, however. The Velvet Underground invented a kind of noise very different from tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler’s or avant-gardist Mauricio Kagel’s. Even inside the various forms of postpunk noise, there’s incredible variegation.
The best noise flows from many fonts. It may be made by the same coterie of individuals, but that doesn’t mean the music will sound the same. The records dealt with here were created by a small number of brains, but their products are as different as butter and haystacks.
The Blue Humans’ Live–N.Y. 1980 is a period piece from a New York scene that wasn’t well documented. In 1980 downtown New York was in a sorta post-Contortions funk. The no-wave and post-no-wave bands were never popular, and their development had come to a standstill. But there was some interesting crossbreeding with and appreciation for the post-Trane jazz players of the second loft era. Bands like the World Saxophone Quartet or Defunkt would share bills with groups like DNA or the Hi Sheriffs of Blue, and a feeling of noise synchronicity was in the air. But few bands integrated jazz and punk personnel as one unit. The Blue Humans were one of the select.
The Blue Humans are still led by guitarist Rudolph Grey, late of the band Red Transistor and best known for his Amok Press book on director Ed Wood. In 1980 the other players were drummer Beaver Harris (an alumnus of Archie Shepp’s immense mid-60s bands and Ayler’s European troupe) and saxophonist Arthur Doyle, a proponent of high energy improvisation with far too few sessions in his resume.
No recordings were released during this lineup’s existence, but the Live–N.Y. LP is a pretty fine (if lo-fi) document of a set at Ruth Polsky’s new-wave club, Hurrah, in March 1980. Doyle doubles on flute, Grey is in wild Sharrockian fettle–weaving feedback into sheets of densely packed circular riffs–and Harris (while suffering the most from the poor sound quality) is driven to a high level of pummel activity.
At the time it was tough to figure what older musicians were making of the young white noise fans who were goading them to play in front of smacked-out dorks with lousy haircuts, but here they sound happy to wail. Doyle in particular sounds like a savage force of nature. It’s a pity he recorded so little (two sessions) in the 12 years preceding this show.
Thankfully, Doyle is also represented by a pair of recent solo recordings under his own name. Arthur Doyle Plays and Sings From the Songbook Volume One was recorded in 1992 and features him on tenor, flute, piano, and vocals. The seven songs here range from hypnotic lullabylike chants accompanied by one-note piano (the results sound like a disturbed human music box) to blazing, torn-edge sax solos that sound as though they were rent from the heart of a lion. Doyle’s combination of mumbled visionary and ripped spiritual exhortation seems to be balanced on a razor’s edge. He most resembles such willful primitives as Michael Hurley and George “Bongo Joe” Coleman. But while those two guys are led into all sorts of conceptual culs-de-sac (and concomitantly unsatisfying music) by their overweening desire to be liked, Doyle’s aim to placate no soul but his own gives his music an almost graceful stylistic holism. The various parts of his oeuvre elevate the entire body of his work to a weirdly appealing place.
Doyle is by all accounts a difficult figure, something borne out by his music. The Songwriter, recorded by Doyle at his home in 1994, is as roughly stark and strangely powerful an album as you’ll find. Shorn of the leavening influence of his piano playing, Songwriter is an even darker work than Plays and Sings From the Songbook. The tenor runs hang like slabs of sound, teeming with a life force that gives off a distinctly malevolent–or at least unholy–vibe. Doyle’s playing and chanting won’t soothe anyone. Even when the mood is at its most disconnected and seemingly nonthreatening (as on the version of the traditional French tune “Frere Jacques” or on his tribute to Coltrane) there is an explosive “Don’t fuck with me” tension here that keeps the performance riveting. Doyle’s tone is pretty insane on The Songwriter too. The only horn players who’ve ever made sounds with this kind of consistently burled surface are Ayler, Joe McPhee, and the nameless Baptist honkers who accompanied hymns in the pre-electricity churches of the rural south. Doyle makes guys like Charles Gayle and David Ware sound like members of Supersax in comparison. He’s way beyond the rim of the known and well worth investigating.
During the 1980s Doyle was in France and Rudolph Grey was finishing up his Ed Wood opus. But Grey continued to play occasional shows, and one of them–a 23-minute sput of intense improvisation–has been released as Incandescence. The Blue Humans on the recording are Grey, Harris, and New York saxophonist Jim Sauter. Recorded at CBGB in 1988, Incandescence is very different from Live–N.Y. 1980.
While Harris’s playing is in his traditionally potent and fevered vein, Grey’s approach has matured. No longer laboring in anyone else’s mold, Grey presents the electric guitar as an unstoppable force. His playing is relentless, building a granite mountain of sound, cadence by cadence. Sauter’s playing–more in the European free-music tradition than in the American–gives the music a very different texture than it would have had with Doyle. The opening sequence is fantastic. Grey’s sound twirls through the air like the glissandos of Gong-era Steve Hillage, and Sauter breaks the monolithic stridency of his lung-gush into man-sized chunks of rebarred concrete. There are ebbs to accommodate various emotive spurts, but the density increases steadily, making Incandescence very strong stuff.
Sauter’s primary performing unit is a trio called Borbetomagus. They recently released their 15th album, Experience the Magic, which was also recorded live at CBGB. Borbetomagus comprises two saxophonists, Sauter and Don Dietrich, and one guitarist, electric string destroyer Donald Miller. While these instruments seem as though they’d be ones easily “penetrated” by the average listener, initial spins of Borbetomagus sides can be quite daunting when you’re trying to identify what the hell is going on instrumentally. Sauter and Dietrich both spend a great deal of their time in the amplified ether of their horns’ upper registers, and Miller’s guitar playing is so far removed from standard techniques that his only real peer is AMM’s Keith Rowe.
Experience the Magic is prime Borbetomagus. The music on the first piece, “Bathed in the Blood of the Lamb,” begins with continent-sized shelves of aural texture rubbing and mating, and resolves into what sounds like a slowed-down recording of a napalm drop. The second piece, “Grunion Run,” is more transparently the sum of its components. Staggered blurts of guitar overload are fed into a blast furnace powered by horns. What’s produced is a sound cloud that hovers over your head, sending down the occasional burst of lightning. Shape changing, boundless, full of current, the sounds that Borbetomagus generate on Experience the Magic are massive and truly alien.
The band has also started to reissue its long out-of-print back catalog for those who’d like to more fully investigate its unique approach. The first fruits are the band’s eponymous debut from 1980, Borbetomagus, and its live third album from 1982, also called Borbetomagus (but sometimes referred to as the Black Album). The first album features the band in a quartet setting with the addition of Brian Doherty’s electronics. The saxophone parts on this album are more obviously post-Brotzmann bellows, and Doherty’s crude blabbering synthesizers add nicely to the confusion. The CD also features a rumbling eight-minute bonus track not on the original LP, and it would serve as a somewhat less foreboding entree to the band than some of their other releases. The Black Album was originally released in an edition of 500, and has subsequently been one of the trio’s hardest-to-find releases. Four tracks recorded over a two-year period, the record documents the band learning to blend their instrumental voices into an untaggable whole. It includes some sax playing that would almost fit into the standard high-energy jazz canon, but Miller’s guitar work is always a wild card. His manipulation of feedback makes him a potent and unpredictable noise generator, and his presence keeps the band’s moves from appearing to have been borrowed.
Miller has also had a new release this year. Little Treatise on Morals is a two LP set, recorded in 1982 and originally released on cassette in 1986. The music is all solo guitar, but it sounds like a lot of things, from a piano in the throes of self-destruction to a feedback loop on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. These pieces are mostly so aggressive that it’s tough to relax while listening to them, but it’s possible to be transported by them, and that’s ultimately more difficult to come by.
It’s safe to say that anyone with a keen interest in the more noisy aspects of contemporary music will find sustenance in the work of Miller and his mates. Meanwhile, the music of the Blue Humans acts as a wonderful bridge between European and American free-form freakery, and Doyle’s solo albums are pure screams of fevered humanity. You could certainly spend a fine snowy day buried in the collective mounds of sound these guys produce. And believe me, it’d be a day well spent.