Sunday, August 16, 2020

Irreducible: Colossamite live (finally)

I've been on an Alice Coltrane kick lately (working my way through the Impulses right now) and also going back through some of the late Coltrane material from when Alice was in the band (Stellar Regions, Expression, etc.). It occurred to me — esp. given how much great footage there is out there of the classic quartet — what a huge loss it is that there's no high-quality extended footage of that final group with Alice, Pharoah, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali. (This brief and fragmentary footage from Newport '66 is all we've got, as far as I know.)

The truth is that, in the YouTube era, we as fans are incredibly spoiled, in that we can dial up pretty much whatever we want at any moment, whether it's the Cecil Taylor Unit live in Paris in 1969, or Zeppelin live at a tiny teen club in Denmark that same year. It's incalculable how much this circumstance has enriched my musical understanding in the past 10 years or so, giving me the chance to lay eyes on countless bands — from Last Exit to '84 Black Flag, the Stanier-Bogdan-era Helmet lineup and Sabbath in their absolute prime — that whether due to age, geography or circumstance, I never got to see in person.

That collective archive extends about as far into the underground as you want to go — all the way to, say, a 1996 Karate show in my hometown of KC, where I was one of maybe 30 people in the audience. But somehow some bands seem to have slipped through the cracks, and for the longest time, it seemed like Colossamite was one of those. If you've heard of them at all, chances are you're about as obsessed as I am; if not, you're in the great majority. Though they put out two mind-searing releases on the great and relatively visible Skin Graft label in the late '90s — All Lingo's Clamor and Economy of Motion — they're barely remembered these days, even among those who might be die-hard fans of prior or later bands involving some of the same musicians (Dazzling Killmen, Deerhoof, etc.). 

Among a few friends and me, these records quickly became legendary for their combination of the calculated fury of bands like the Killmen and craw with the chaotic blurt of free improvisation and hints of esoteric and offbeat humor. In short, in my eyes, this was some of the most challenging, original and inspired music of its time. But the band sort of came and went and I never found myself near any of their performances during their too-brief lifespan.

All throughout the YouTube era, as the fossil record, so to speak, grew more and more comprehensive, I kept waiting for the day when some Colossamite footage might surface. When I had the pleasure of interviewing Colossamite guitar masterminds John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez — who first came on my radar via their participation in this band and then went on to well-deserved renown as members of Deerhoof — for my Heavy Metal Bebop series in 2012, we talked at length about Colossamite (see here and here), and Ed mentioned to me that he knew of a single show that had been recorded, and that he thought he might have a VHS copy stashed away somewhere. Well, apparently the person who filmed that gig recently dug it up and deemed it worthy of posting because — as Ed has just informed me in an email — it's now sitting there on YouTube for all to see. 


As I type this, I'm only about halfway through it but I wanted to take a second to document that feeling of joy and enrichment that comes with laying eyes on something you truly never thought you'd see, of witnessing a band in performance that you assumed you'd only ever hear. I tell you, friends, it's as awesome as I could have ever hoped for. Considering the vintage, the quality is excellent and, though John is sadly out of frame for a lot of it, the video really clues you in to what a fearsome organism this band truly was. 

Being a drummer myself, and having had the good fortune to see Colossamite vocalist-guitarist Nick Sakes play many times in later years in the outstanding bands Sicbay and Xaddax and guitarists Dieterich and Rodriguez play together in the mighty Deerhoof and separately in a handful of projects, a major focus for me watching this is the drummer, Chad Popple. Chad has been (at least to me) a bit of a shadowy figure in the years since Colossamite ended. From what I understand, he's been living in Europe since that time, and though he's been active this whole time in various experimental/uncategorizable contexts (including the great and underrated Gorge Trio with Dieterich and Rodrigez), he's been a bit harder to keep tabs on than his ex-Colossamite bandmates. Anyway, my first exposure to the Colossamite records came before I really had a grasp of the free-jazz/free-improv continuum but over the years, especially as I heard drummers like Han Bennink, Tony Oxley and Paul Lovens, it started to become clearer to me how ingenious Popple's style really was: the way he combined the startling aggression of the best post-hardcore and metal drummers of the '90s with a turbulent flow that seemed to have more in common with the Euro improv greats mentioned above or, say, Drumbo circa Lick My Decals Off, Baby. (Regarding the latter quality, it's interesting to note that my old friend Kevin Shea seems to have been thinking along similar lines around the same time, as heard in Storm and Stress and, later, Coptic Light.)

Anyway, all of these qualities discussed above, namely both Popple's terrifying force and precision and his warped, destabilizing eccentricity, are on full display in this video. And all of it is also evident in the entire band. From what I can tell, the material comes mostly from Economy of Motion, so we get the diseased lurch of "Mr. Somebody Does Something" along with the surrealist spoken word of "The Eagle and the Seal" and the tense build of "Arkansas Halo." (Listening further, I'm thrilled to hear "No Entran Moscas" from All Lingo's, with its endlessly unspooling chorus riff.) It's such a pleasure to watch the band tear into every aspect of this material, absolutely raging through the loud moments and relishing the wobble and fragility of the freer passages, and then smiling and joking nonchalantly between songs. 

I love how willing Colossamite were to send their audience mixed signals, never aligning themselves with any subset of metal or post-hardcore or the conventions of free improv or of more well-established avant-rock practices. They were just a thrillingly weird band that honed a beautifully organic writing style that implored the listener at every second to buckle up for what might be coming next. In my own mind, they certainly helped to redefine what a "band" could be, and helped to further drive home the idea that some of the music that would hit me the hardest and stick with me the longest would be the most personal, the least relatable to known styles or pursuits, but at the same time, the most carefully and meticulously engineered. I'm reminded a bit here of something that Dazzling Killmen bassist Darin Gray said to me when looking back on first encountering craw in the early '90s:

[From a 2015 Noisey interview; emphasis mine]

"…I think probably at the time, live, [craw] was the most unique band I had ever heard. There really isn't another band like craw. They're a completely unique entity. And I remember just thinking, like, 'Wow, someone has worked as hard as we have on a completely different thing.' It wasn't that craw sounded anything like Dazzling Killmen, and quite the contrary, really nothing like it. I could tell, I could hear that they had honed it and worked on it to the highest level. And at the time, there weren't a whole lot of bands out there touring that were like that, that had honed something to that high of a level. … The only reason I felt that they did hone their craft the way they did was because they felt they had to; they felt compelled to be great. And to be the best they could be. And for no other reason. There was no gain. There was absolutely nothing to gain, and I could tell they knew that." 

I feel the same things watching this, and am reminded why I was so drawn to this area of music — whatever you want to call it — in my youth and still am now. There was a compulsion to be great coupled with, not a desire to alienate any potential audience exactly, but a distinct refusal to pander to one either, to put up familiar signposts of genre that might orient a casual listener. If you were dealing with this music, either on record as I was, or in a tiny venue, as was the case for these lucky attendees at this Knoxville, TN, Colossamite gig more than 20 years ago, you were dealing with it full-on. That, to me, is one of the great pleasures of underground music — that you might be standing in a room with, say, 15 other people and — as the idle drift of a pre-gig lull snaps suddenly into the crush and overstimulation of the show itself — suddenly have your consciousness forever altered by some shockingly powerful and carefully honed statement. 

I love bigger shows; I love more universal and relatable aesthetics (in addition to the Coltranes, I've been listening to a ton of late '70s and early '80s AC/DC lately); but I will always hold a special place in my heart for a band like Colossamite, who developed and refined such a personal language among themselves that it's essentially irreducible and incomparable to anything other than itself. As it is on the records, that achievement is frozen in time on this live video, and I'm thrilled that even after all this time, it still feels utterly alien, invigorating, and alive.

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