Monday, May 14, 2012

The Secret Museum: 
Maher Shalal Hash Baz
-  Be Quick if You Steal!

    Maher Shalal Hash Baz started in 1984 as a noise/punk rock group in Japan before eventually heading out into more conceptual waters. Band leader Tori Kudo is the visionary force behind their music, and is joined by his wife Reiko and a rotating cast of fellow musicians for their projects( some ex -members have formed the group Tenniscoats). They very quickly dropped the “constraints” of writing three minute rock songs, for the “liberating” effect of even shorter pieces. The music falls somewhere between psych – folk, and pop, with helpings of experimental and purely improvised group interplay added to the mix.
What would you say if I told you this band have released a two cd set that has 177 songs on it, with most between thirty to sixty seconds long! We might debate over what actually constitutes a “song”, but there is no denying the audacity of their 2009 release titled “C’est La Dernier Chanson” (English translation from my almost 24 yr. old daughter Mackenzie who majored in French  from The University of New Mexico is : “This is the Last Song”). Mr. Kudo has likened listening to this music as if you are visiting an art museum. The general public normally spends a couple of hours walking through a museum, stopping at various paintings briefly before moving on to the next offering. Most people will find this 2 cd set from Maher Shalal Hash Baz: A) their most enjoyable, or B) their most maddening. I think you already know without listening to a note of it what side you’ll be on. When I first read it was 177 songs on 2cds, with most under a minute in length (some only five to fifteen seconds!), I had to have it. Others might recall a painful trip to the dentist when reading about such brief snippets of arrangements and melodies. I think you will find it very likeable, as long as you accept the brevity of the music. Some might call this simple music, and that wouldn’t be an inaccurate comment, but it is very difficult to know what exactly should be simplified to make great art, or music.
The Velvet Underground, for one example, derived great power from their less is more approach to rock n’roll, and understood the hypnotic effect of well placed repetition in their songs (“Sister Ray”, “Heroin”). Kudo also knows how to strip down the unnecessary parts of a song to make great music. He has been involved with pottery for a long time, being taught the basics of that craft by his father, and knows how to strip clay, and now music, down to its most essential core. After many years of practice and discipline in cutting away the unneeded parts to his songs, what’s left is a beautiful simplicity to his music that is rarely attained by others. While the band’s primitive sound and lyrics that express real emotion may not be for everyone, it comes from their heart, and isn’t that all you could ever ask for from musicians?
 They have infrequently performed live through the years, and it’s also hard to find their music since they have been on a number of smaller independent labels (Geographic, Yik Yak, and K Records). You can pick up a handful of Tori and Reiko’s solo releases from the Japanese label PSF Records, but some of the band's titles are getting impossible to find and are quite collectable (3 cd Return Visit to Rock Mass, 1996).  If the 2 cd “Chanson” seems too daunting to start with, you might try “Blues de Jour”, or “Maher on Water”, both of those releases have more of a pop/guitar oriented sound. The instrumental/group improvisational stuff is featured more on“Faux Depart”, and “Live Aoiheya”, but any of the releases will have their trademark minimalism, and abrupt writing style. Their name Maher Shalal Hash Baz comes from a biblical passage from the book of Isaiah, and band leader Tori Kudo’s translation of the phrase is, “Be quick if you steal”.  I don’t know about Maher Shalal Hash Baz being thieves, but there is no doubt that they are very fast indeed!

         Jim Webb

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Bevis Frond Map Guide

The Secret Museum

By Jim Webb

Nick Saloman is one of the most underappreciated guitarists/songwriters of our generation. Notice I didn’t say singers, even though he does have a unique voice; that is more of an acquired taste. He is “Bevis Frond”, even though other mates of his (Adrian Shaw, Martin Crowley to name two) have periodically contributed to the musical journey. Working out of his bedroom led to a certain lo-fi ambiance on his earlier recordings, with the initial LP titled “Miasma” appearing in 1986. While there is a wealth of diverse styles that Nick is comfortable writing in, it is important to know what recordings might be most compatible with your tastes. Why waste time trying the song- oriented releases, if what you really wanted was the psychedelic inspired guitar freakouts. I will not say “they’re all great”, that’s a fanatic’s phrase that shows he’s been so captured by a musician’s spell that he’s now lost in the forest of infatuation. The Bevis Frond just recently ended a seven-year hiatus with the release in 2011 of “Leaving London.” I think it’s time to navigate the musical topography that he has travelled these last twenty-five years, and point out a few significant sites along the way.

The Lo-Fi / Psych - Guitar Blow Outs:
Miasma / Inner Marshland / Triptych / Acid Jam / Auntie Winnie/Through the Looking Glass

While there is any number of great shorter “songs” on any of the aforementioned releases, they are dominated by piercing lead guitar work, longer instrumental passages, and watery keyboard/organ fills. Psychedelic might mean Grateful Dead/Quicksilver Messenger Service to some, to Nick it is a hyperextension of what Jimi Hendrix was doing. He layers plenty of raw guitars that explode out of the studio speakers, no time limit as to when the lava will stop flowing off his fret board. The problem with trying to classify his output is that you have such ultra-Pop gems like “Lights Are Changing” (Triptych) on the same cd with the 19:47 long “Tangerine Infringement Beak”. Let’s not split hairs- Saloman will always be a stylistically divergent cat. Remember that a maps job is to get you close to where you want to be.

The Bard of Walthamstowe:
Any Gas Faster / New River Head / Son of Walter / North Circular

I do not mean in any way, shape or form that these are Sweet Baby James, Jackson Browne confessional diary-type songs that can be used as sleep aids. Nick has always taken the time to write interesting lyrics with a personal slant, he still has a lot of muscular guitar riffs flying around on these songs; they just seemed to get compacted into a shorter structure. The two cd North Circular is the high water mark to these ears, with New River Head not far behind. Some of these riffs during this period wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Dinosaur Jr. cd for an American reference, but Saloman’s words (Stars Burn Out) and vocal delivery take him way above other talented three chord masters. The song “New River Head” shows just how far Nick has come, lyrically and melodically.

Riff City:
Gathering of Fronds / Superseeder / London Stone / Scorched Earth

Ok, Scorched Earth is a side project from 2008, but “Woman Gone Bad” has such a heavy slamming riff that Ron Asheton shat his pants when he first heard it (I’m assuming). London Stone features the slashing “Well Out of It”, that riff you could loop into a thirty minute remix and I wouldn’t get tired of it. “Gathering” compiles a lot of rarities onto a full-length cd, featuring a guest appearance by guitarist, and Nick’s boyhood friend, Bari Watts. If you like the heavy guitar aspect of Bevis Frond, then Bari’s band The Outskirts of Infinity should also be checked out.

Other Stuff:
It Just Is / Vavona Burr / Valedictory Songs / What Did for the Dinosaurs

I wouldn’t call anything from The Bevis Frond “bad” but there are a few that didn’t do much for me. His various styles from these cds all had better songs on other releases, and a little bit of the old Bevis energy seems to have dropped a notch. All of them still have a few nuggets (High on a Downer from Valedictory), but not surprisingly Nick took a brief break from his Bevis activities from 2004 to 2011. The most recent cd titled “Leaving London” shows that Nick Saloman remains as creative as ever, and doesn’t intend to get bogged down in following other people’s ideas of style and order in his music. You can expect, and get, anything from a folk inspired bash to a full-blown guitar rave up. Let’s hope we get another twenty-five years of Nick Saloman’s music, God bless The Bevis Frond and all who sail with her.
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