Monday, March 09, 2015

Space and grace: The return of Blind Idiot God

Jordan N. Mamone, an excellent writer-about-music and a longtime Time Out New York contributor, wrote an exemplary preview of this past Saturday's record-release show by the veteran instrumental band Blind Idiot God, which you can read here. (Spoiler alert re: the concert: I was there, and it was fucking great.) Jordan notes that for the past 20 years or so, "…in-the-know doom and math-rock fans [have whispered Blind Idiot God's] name in reverent tones." I know what he means. For ages, I've heard tons of folks who, like me, gravitate toward these general musical zones, speak/write reverently Blind Idiot God. In the past, I'd checked out their ’80s and ’90s material, and enjoyed bits and pieces of what I'd heard, but for whatever reason, BIG never quite clicked with me. Upon first exposure, their music just didn't lodge in my brain and viscera the way that, say, the instrumental Black Flag material or the Don Caballero catalog did (to cite, respectively, one contemporary and one logical descendant of BIG).

To be fair, I suspect that the hushed-tones phenomenon cited above has been helped along by a few key extramusical factors: 1) Blind Idiot God had the SST / Greg Ginn stamp of approval during a time when that stamp of approval really meant something—a factor like this is always crucial in upping an underground band's cachet. 2) They also had the NYC downtown-scene stamp of approval, via associations with John Zorn and Bill Laswell, which meant that the rogue jazzheads who may not have given bands like Black Flag or Don Cab the time of day seemed to look at BIG as some sort of exception to the rule when it came to progressive, aggressive underground rock. I deeply respect Brian Olewnick's work (his beautifully written blog is only the tip of the iceberg), but I bristle at this phrase in his AllMusic review of BIG's third album, Cyclotron: "While still head and shoulders over most thrash-influenced 'math rock…' " I could of course be sorely mistaken, but this seems like a textbook case of a writer dismissing an entire (sub-)genre without actually having explored the depth and variety of said (sub-)genre. This whole metal/math-rock-for-smart-people concept—i.e., "I'll listen to a Zorn/Laswell-affiliated 'math rock' band like Blind Idiot God, but I won't get to know, say, the Touch and Go or Skin Graft catalogs"—seems deeply suspect to me. (Two qualifications/clarifications: A) in the mid-’80s, when BIG first emerged, their field, so to speak, was far less crowded, so maybe they did seem all that much more special to those who were paying attention, and B) I just want to emphasize that I'm taking issue here with perceived critical snobbishness, not BIG's actual music or aesthetic values.) And 3) Blind Idiot God picked an amazing name. It sounds so wonderfully, perfectly antisocial to proclaim one's self a fan of a band that goes by that Lovecraft-indebted moniker.

Despite my prior ambivalence, I was still mighty intrigued by the news, arriving in late 2014, that BIG would be releasing a comeback album in 2015. The band's current drummer, Tim Wyskida—formerly of the blood-curdlingly intense Khanate—works in my office building, and he and I have become friendly. I knew that BIG had been working on a new record for a while—Bill Laswell, who co-produced the album, mentioned it to me when I interviewed him in 2012—but last I'd heard, the project was in limbo. When I'd ask Tim about a release date, he'd typically laugh and cite the widely reported perfectionism of guitarist-bandleader (and, as of now, sole original member) Andy Hawkins. But here it was: concrete info on an upcoming release.

I'll cut to the chase: The album in question—Before Ever After, available from Hawkins's own Indivisible Music imprint; that's cover you see above—is outstanding, easily one of my favorite records of the young year, and almost certainly the best heavy-, metal- or "extreme music"–related release of the 2015 crop (right now, it's neck-and-neck with Napalm Death's stunning Apex Predator—Easy Meat). Suddenly, all at once, I get Blind Idiot God. I'm officially a member of the hushed-tones club.

Blind Idiot God is still an instrumental band, but as in the old days, there's a certain verbal concept coming through in the song titles: "Earthmover," "Under the Weight," "Wheels of Progress," "Barrage." (The vintage Cyclotron review above touches on the heavy-machinery metaphor too: "The listener feels buffeted about, as if inside a roaring engine at 30,000 feet.") The strange thing about
these associations is how inadequately they capture what, to me, makes Blind Idiot God's music, specifically the music they're making now, great. What I love about Before Ever After is precisely that it doesn't feels monolithic or mechanized, or really heavy in any traditional, metal-oriented sense. Jordan's preview homed in on the aspect(s) of the record I respond to most: "…the LP emphasizes lumbering repetition that infuses the music with increased space and grace. The noisy stuff breathes deeper [i.e., deeper than it did in during BIG's first phase of operation]…" That "breathes" concept is key.

"Wheels of Progress," which you can hear here, is a masterpiece in this regard. The song's snarling intro riff lunges forward in a kind of stumbling rubato time, as though the music were hurling itself against a wall, exhausting itself, panting and then starting over again. The second riff, starting around :30, has a similar kind of organic feel—crunching, grinding to a halt and then sort of melting away into a luminous goo of sound. The guitar and bass intertwine and crane to the sky, Hawkins's notes bending and singing. The track kicks into a more rigorous, propulsive groove, but the respiratory feel of the music remains intact. The middle of the song features a gorgeous ambient interlude, with Hawkins playing a series of delicate and hypnotic melodies, conjuring blissful delirium. The second theme (the one that starts at :30) returns, but it sounds even more spent this time around, less rigorous, almost as if it had warped from exposure to its own heat. If metal is, to take the genre's name at face value, the sound of strength and rigor, Blind Idiot God is the sound of pulsation and flow. The music isn't, to my ears, mechanized; it sounds biological. This record truly does breathe.

A lot of this has to do with Wyskida. The music he's playing with BIG, these avant-heavy dreamscapes, couldn't be more different than what he played with Khanate, which specialized in creeping, crawling gloom. But the two bands do share an especially organic approach. Khanate and BIG differ from 99% of all other rock-/metal-related music in their loose relationship to the idea of metric time. The music's pulse expands and contracts as needed. (In Khanate, that idea was obviously pushed to the absolute extreme.) And Wyskida is one of the rare heavy drummers I've heard, and especially one of the rare double-bass drummers I've heard, who can pummel while also caressing the time, coaxing out its little microdetails. On "Twenty Four Hour Dawn"—the album opener, and also the opener of Saturday's show—Wyskida accompanies Hawkins's harsh, glinting first riff with a sort of dancing, undulating march pattern, a beat that reminds me of Ronald Shannon Jackson in its insistence on a very personal, almost folksy kind of groove contour. At the show, Wyskida played a sizable double-bass kit (interestingly, the left kick drum was slightly smaller than the right), and he hit hard, but he wasn't brutalizing the music like, say, the insanely crushing Eric Neuser, drummer of opening band Gnaw, which features Wyskida's former Khanate bandmate Alan Dubin on vocals. Wyskida's roll-heavy approach brought out the music's impressionistic quality as much as its ferocious aspect. You can hear an example of this at around the 3:30 mark in the recorded version of "Twenty Four Hour Dawn." In one of many thrilling, unexpected changes-of-musical-scenery that occur on Before Ever After, the band breaks into a kind of skipping uptempo groove. And though they keep ramping up the intensity, with Wyskida hammering on the double kicks, the music retains a lightness—to borrow another phrase of Jordan's, a feeling of space and grace. ("Under the Weight" is another great place to hear this odd, intoxicating juxtaposition of buoyancy and aggression.) This record is heavy, yes, but it's also remarkably balletic.

Hawkins's guitarwork is of course another essential component of the BIG sound. Like Wyskida, he's a player who's fully able to bring the pain in a relatively traditional manner—check out "Earthmover," which features a lead riff that's heavily reminiscent of the Melvins' doom-rock classic "Night Goat"—but who's just as concerned with the texture of the sound as with its weight. His best riffs, like the opening theme of "Twenty Four Hour Dawn" or the central pattern in "Barrage," seem to be made of light as much as sound. They glint and burst, flash and dissolve. Occasionally, Hawkins takes a proper solo—there's a glorious, Sonny Sharrock–ian lead outburst around 1:45 into "Twenty Four Hour Dawn"—but he's a player more given to outbursts of texture. There's a gorgeous ambient interlude in "Twenty Four Hour Dawn" (yes, I know I'm citing this track frequently, but it's long and eventful and amazing!), around the 5:00 mark, where the groove drops out, and Hawkins plays these alternately trilling and roaring figures that diffuse and sparkle in the air like handfuls of colored powder. Another track on Before Ever After, "Voice of the Structure," is an abstract solo guitar piece that moves palindromically from near-silence to a buzzing, singing electro-wail and back again. ("Voice of the Structure" harks back to Halo, a solo record that Hawkins issued in 1994 under the name Azonic.) Seeing Hawkins play live was fascinating. The amplification was extreme, as is BIG's wont—see this recent definitive Hawkins interview by another Time Out contributor, Brad Cohan, for more on that—with mountains of guitar and bass cabinets heaped at the back of the stage. And Hawkins employed an insanely large rig and several different, unusually (for underground avant-rock, that is) fancy-looking guitars. No beat-up SGs or Les Pauls here—these were boldly colored, oddly shaped beauties that looked like they might be custom jobs. But like Wyskida, he wasn't out to brutalize. He employed a personal vocabulary of gestures (scraping the pick on the strings above the fretboard, for instance) and chords to conjure a sound that was, yes, huge, but just as importantly, rich, immersive and sensuous. Hearing Hawkins live, I felt more bathed in sound than assaulted with it. And though he's an intimidating-looking guy—stocky, with closed-cropped white hair—his stage presence isn't aggro. He's a painter with sound, seemingly more intent on sculpting the medium for its own sake than infusing it with any kind of extramusical violence. (He speaks to that idea in the Cohan interview: "For me, using music to express emotion is like using a howitzer to kill a fly: It ought not to be necessary, and it's a poor use of the resource.")

The space, the grace, the sense of breathing, they all bring me to the elephant in the room, which is Blind Idiot God's dub proclivity. (If you're not familiar with the group, they've always interspersed their heavy, prog-punk-ish "core" material with humid, sensuous, funky dub.) I admit I'm somewhat wary of this aspect of the BIG aesthetic. What I love about their rock-oriented side, especially on Before Ever After, is how idiosyncratic, how open and unbounded it feels. BIG's dub, to me, feels less personal, oddly conventional for a band so determined to will a fresh sound into being. After many listens through Before Ever After, I'm starting to enjoy the dub material—specifically, tracks like "High and Mighty" and "Night Driver"—in a palate-cleansing sort of way. These tracks do help to pace the record, to make it feel like a journey. (The live show, on the other hand, followed the template of the first, self-titled Blind Idiot God record and sequenced all the dub tracks together at the end—something of a momentum-killer for me.) And the album's excellent sound—this is probably the best-sounding Laswell-related record I've heard—its rich, buttery, spacious massiveness really flatters the tranced-out throb of these tracks. Also, "Strung," the second-to-last track on Before Ever After, which contains elements of both BIG's rock and dub tendencies, hints at the intriguing idea that in the future, these two components of the band's sound might be less segregated.

My personal feelings on the dub element aside, Before Ever After is a fascinating record, one that the current version of the band, rounded out by bassist Will Dahl, brings to roaring, pulsating life onstage. BIG circa 2015 is a band fully at ease with its eccentricity, and maybe more attuned to it than ever. The album indeed fuses avant-rock with a rare kind of space and grace, makes it breathe and throb and pulsate. To me, Before Ever After secures BIG's primacy in the canon of bands that have successfully integrated post-hardcore rock expression with an uncannily organic pulse, a sense that the music is more animal than machine. (Coptic Light and Multitudes both come to mind in this regard; for all I know, both have drawn inspiration from BIG's past work.) Hear the strange way this music moves—not like heavy machinery, but like some oozing, wriggling giant slug—and feel the way it moves you.

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