emerged from an eccentric byway of the San Francisco music scene in the late 1970s. At
the time, the group's music was a prescient mix of human and machine-made sounds,
with a propulsive beat and a savory dash of anomie.
In the decades since, the band’s membership has fluctuated wildly, and the members
scattered from California to Rotterdam to Brussels to Mexico City. Given the diffuse nature
of their activities, it’s hard to say whether they ever definitively “broke up,” but in any case
some of them were back together in 2004 to release Cabin in the Sky. Now they
have followed that up with Bardo Hotel, a suite of spontaneously improvised
compositions recorded back in San Francisco to accompany a film by George Kakanakis.
The record’s title refers in part to the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism an
intermediate state between living and death. “In the bardo,” a study on Buddhism tells us,
“the subtle consciousness undergoes all manner of extremely vivid experiences both
intensely horrific and vastly peaceful.”
The title refers even more directly to a rundown Paris hotel with no name, where a group
of Beat writers set up residence in the late 1950s. It was there that William Burroughs and
Brion Gysin developed the “cut-up/fold-in” technique, which Burroughs would launch
upon the literary world with Naked Lunch. Gysin would refer to the place in his
memoirs as the “Beat Museum/Bardo Hotel.”
What does the new record sound like? A little like meditation and a little like travel. The
musical attitude and the instrumentarium are largely contemporary classical, though Luc
van Lieshout’s satisfying trumpet and flugelhorn passages are played in a jazz manner.
The cyclic, trance-like nature of most of the pieces resembles a ragged version of Steve
Reich or Philip Glass—or, alternatively, a sped-up version of Bill Laswell’s Hear No
Evil (Venture, 1988); the long and hypnotic “Vulcanic, Combustible” is the best
example. (In contrast, “Baron Brown (Live)” is the most bizarre acoustic funk set to wax in
a long, long time.)
Cut-up and folded-in speech samples (a loudspeaker announcement at the Embarcadero
BART station, instructions to airplane passengers, “welcome to Mexico City,” quirky
admonitions from a hotel manager) evoke travel. This echoes the Beats’ apparent
conviction that rambling physical travel could simulate, and maybe even trigger, more
profound travel between states of consciousness (such as the bardo, so assiduously
pursued by Allen Ginsberg).
The propulsive, repetitive nature of the music itself also suggests forward movement (this
record sounds great on headphones while traveling by train); the very cyclicality, though,
gives the impression of never reaching one’s destination. But maybe that’s the point.
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Jeff Dayton-Johnson is a rapidly-aging economist who works for an international organization in Paris. More about Jeff...
More Recent CD Reviews...
Hurry Up and Wait; Effervescing in the Nether Sphere; Soup du Jour;
Flying Again; Triptych; I'm Real Stupid; Airport Blues; Needles
Prelude; Prometheus Bound; Baron Brown (Live); Jinx (Choral Version);
Loneliness; Remote (Pralaya); Dream Flight; More Flying; Vulcanic,
Combustible; Mr. Comfort; Another Flight; Invocation Of; Carry On
Blaine L. Reininger: violin, guitar, computer; Steven Brown: saxes,
clarinet, keyboards, tapes; Luc van Lieshout: trumpet, fluegelhorn,
harmonica; Peter Principle: guitar, bass; George Kakanakis: visuals
Style: Fringes of Jazz
Review Published: June 29, 2006