Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Psychedelic folk, hypno-groove, space jazz, minimal noise, subharmonics--buzz words that could be used to describe bits and pieces of my idea of today's most visionary sonic abstractionists. I couldn't think of any finer examples of this all-as-one approach than three bands that have been a steady presence on the avant/jazz/psych whatever scene since they came onto it, or it came onto them: Ghost, Charalambides and The Lost Domain.

Ghost (click here for their live set from '02 at WFMU) is one of the most revered modern psych bands, but would your average Floyd freak or Deadhead be familiar? No sir. Good thing, too. These people aren't really tuned to receive such a sound. This is psychedelia in the Gnostic sense, with rhythms cast from a more primordial cloth.

From the beginning Ghost's music was as much about genuine Buddhist spirituality as songcraft--arguably more so, and just as they celebrate the life of the spirit, they mourn its death. Listening back now to their debut, and the more free form live display of Temple Stone, they had a feral intensity that felt more immediate and incantatory than any other "neo-psych rockers" of the time, and these days even sounds downright prophetic of the whole developing folk/improv scene. The first albums of Amon Düül I are a good reference point, and just as Chris Karrar and John Weinzierl grew more ambitious and technically adept, striking out on their own as Amon Düül II and achieving massive creative success, Ghost matured and coalesced into an arguably more conventional classic rock ensemble, but that is classic rock as the ultimate realization of such a loaded phrase. Albums like LamiRabiRabi and Snuffbox Immanence (both Drag City) define modern guitar psych excellence in the last 10 years, and feature one of the best axemen alive in Michio Kurihara, along with an always revolving, visionary cast of supporters. Those who've seen their live show can attest to their hypnotic power. The two times I've seen 'em, I felt the kind of awe that might've been reserved for Hendrix or Can on a really good night. No exaggeration.

Enter Hypnotic Underworld (Drag City), the first Ghost album in five years. I was almost caught offguard by the extended title suite that opens the first side. Its first part, "God Takes a Picture of His Illness on the Ground" plays like the murky psych/jazz soundtrack to post WWII Japanese devastation, or more recent atrocities. Alienation bleeds through the shadows for a good 13 minutes, but with each new part of the journey, the soul of the piece approaches some sort of metamorphosis. "Aramiac barbarous Dawn" captures this moment with surging defiance in just under three minutes of prime galloping prog/folk, before the manic snare blast of "Leave the World" renders the transformation complete. What's left are seven of Ghost's most literate psych folk/prog hybrids to date. "Hazy Paradise" sounds like a bit of mid period Tim Buckley and early Floyd, but mostly classic Ghost. "Piper" has more than a hint of Zeppelin's literary folk/psych grit, but this is decidedly more willowy--light as air but firmly planted. And there's the heart-pounding crescendo of acoustic guitars, sliding electric leads and piano of "Feed" and the two-part album closer of sad barrettes "Dominick - Celebration for the Gray Days"--climaxing with a striking wall of pipe organ that slowly fades on a near religious note. This is arguably Ghost's finest studio moment. The musicianship, especially key member Kazuo Ogino's keyboard work, is stunning and magical throughout. When I first heard this well over a month ago, I wasn't sure if it was good as some people were saying. Now, there can be no doubt. An early and worthy contender for the best of '04.

If Ghost has somehow managed to come closer to the center without losing any of their integrity in the process, Charalambides have only gotten further away from their somewhat more traditional origins. Experimentation has always driven the husband/wife duo, sometimes trio. Their earliest days (roughly 92-97) are possibly more accessible to the lo-fi noise pop enthusiast, but don't be expecting Guided By Voices. Skeletal fuzz folk structures--often just a guitar or two--some backwards effects, lots of grunge with a really beautiful, wounded but stirring, female voice at the center of it all. 95's Market Square (Siltbreeze), recorded with the a third member, is the pinnacle of this period of their avant folk/noise and remains my pick for one of the true great moments in the American underground of the 90s. Back then Charalambides explored the same general mood space as Ghost, probably one of the few bands around that they felt shared some common ground, but their ragged, meditative approach was drawn from the darker visions of Jandek and New Zealand's noise kings, The Dead C, as well as the more familiar acid folk pioneers (Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, The Trees, etc). Again, this is not your father's psychedelia, but as modern as it all seems, for artistic parallels, I'd look to the abstract films of the distant past. The Dada images of a Man Ray film, where various light flashes and grainy specks flicker and swirl against a ghost screen, creating what could be the suggestion of a ballerina spinning or a surreal vortex to the void. Charalambides invoke a vast ocean of subjective reaction, but ultimately there's not any kind of definitive shape or theme in their music, aside from a lingering despair and a constant meditative quality. A-hole academic types could argue that they're hiding behind a wall of white noise and denying any real objectivism in the process, but they've since toned down the feedback and withdrawn into even more distant, seemingly relaxed realms, and proven that fuzz is not a necessity at all. Charalambides simply trust in the so-called harmony of the spheres (also the name of a compilation on Drunken Fish featuring the last recording of the Market Square lineup, the devastating "Naked in Our Deathskins").

Across quite a few self-released CD-R's and limited albums, marking a distressing jump in release volume which I've since lost track of, Charalambides have shied away from the song-aspects of their earlier work and focused more on pure moods and extended pieces. As with their hero Florian Fricke (memorials 9 years before his death on their Union LP--Silbtreeze) and cinematic long-take filmmaster, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charalambides stretch a note way beyond what's needed, and live to explore the universe of possibility between the 12 note tone scale. "Unknown Spin," originally released on their Wholly Other imprint, and the first of a series of releases for Chicago's Kranky, is a fine example of this later period of more overt experimentation. It's also probably the group at its minimal best. Four extended tracks of barely there steel-string slides and languid picking mark a great deal of the material, with the barely perceptible sound of fem voice dotting the distant horizon here and there with silence playing as much a role as sound does. Words are more imagined than understood here. They'd simply get in the way. Also of note is the inclusion of a new version of "Magnolia," a stand out track from the earlier phase of their existence, which gets revisited in a more abstract, minimal rendition, removing much of the grunge of the original but none of its ecstasy. A great jumping off point for their new label home, and a worthy intro into the ever-expanding and utterly unique sound world of Charalambides, though the Increase 2LP, first released on Eclipse and due for a reissue, might be their ultimate trek through such minimal time-lapsing drones.

The Lost Domain is another one of those avant-folk/jazz ensembles that sneaks up on you like an electric eel in shallow water. Probably the least folk sounding of these three bands, this Aussie freak quintet follows a similar personal trajectory to aural enlightenment all the same. The CD-R Something Is (Rhizome) features two extended tracks spanning 75 mins, each taken from shows recorded somewhere in Australia. I like the mystery of it all, have no idea who's involved, but I can tell that fans of the meditative folk-psych that can be traced from the above bands on down to your more propulsive improve rock types like Jackie-O Motherfucker and Sunburned Hand of the Man will want to get hold of this tender morsel asap. My only problem really comes in identifying just what it is exactly. Is it improv/psych? Abstract folk masquerading as stumbling free jazz, or something else altogether? Or is simply another way of looking at all of the above as the same shape-shifting aural entity? It's music that is expansive, for certain, but hardly boring or ponderous or any of those other negative 'p' words. You can come upon either of these tracks at any time, and find yourself wandering amid highly charged sonic debris that lulls and soothes as often as it sizzles and crackles. Grooves form naturally--some alien guitar pluckings, scattered percussion, rumbling subharmonics all slowly build towards a stately hypnotic jam the likes of which Jackie-O is well known for, but Amon Duul perfected long before on their last masterpiece, Paradieswärts, but here there are no vocals aside from some loud, God-like voice declaring "FADE OUT" a few times torwards the end, which is of course what the band does. Dark, ecstatic, reigned in and fiercely hypnotic, this Lost Domain is destined to be discovered by many a wayfaring stranger in days to come.

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