You know how Woody Guthrie has THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS on his guitar? Peter Brötzmann's reeds should have signs that just say THIS MACHINE KILLS. Period, full stop. I say this knowing full well I've backed away from the aesthetic that the harsher and more uncompromising the art, the more "true" and "real" it is. But then I put on something like Machine Gun and come halfway close to believing it all over again. It's like the result of a dare: Someone said to Brötzmann and his seven buddies, go make a racket that ought to clear the room, and instead it pins everyone down and has them clamoring for more. Here it is. You're welcome.
You'd think by now I would recognize the arc of behavior with records that tear up my dictionary definition of music and start over. First time I hear such a record, the predominant impulse is to break the offender over my knee. Waste of polycarbonate and air movement. Then, for no good earthly reason I can fathom, I play the damn thing again. I know what it is: it's me trying to figure out whether or not my original distaste has any legs. And by the time I'm on my seventh or eighth go-round of "is this in fact trash?" the not-trash contingent inside me has far more ayes than nayes, I just need to own up to it. We now have one of Those Records that has upgraded my listening gear and I didn't ever realize it at the time. It was like that with Swans' Greed, with Death Grips and The Money Store (no, wait, it was Year Of The Snitch ... no, wait, any of their records will do nicely here, future releases included) ... and Machine Gun.
Readers of this blog know by now how I got into many kinds of music backwards. I started with the most recent, most outré and extreme forms, then worked my way back through their predecessors. What startled me was how many of the predecessors were just as extreme, if not more so, than their descendants. The harshest and most confrontational records I know are not the all-noise assaults like Merzbow. They're the ones that balance on a knifepoint between anarchy and furious discipline, like Coltrane's Ascension. I know Merzbow fans who can sit through all of Pulse Demon without even needing to uncross their legs, but five minutes of Ascension and they want to break stuff. Merzbow, great as he is, even with an eardrum-melter like Pulse Demon you can turn it down and sorta tune it out; it gets undifferentiated, and all the harshtronics in it become wallpaper. Coltrane, you have to pay attention, because he keeps reminding you there's music here, music-of-a-sort and of-a-kind, and then reminding you there's something way beyond that too. Ascension incarnates the difference between ignoring the rules and respecting the rules but bending them until they get stuck like that and you have to make a special weird-shaped place for it on your shelf.
So, Peter Brötzmann, another one who learned the rules the better to wreck them. He I discovered by way of his son, noise-guitarist Caspar Brötzmann and his band Massaker. After soaking in Brötzmann The Younger's "diaphragm-collapsing volume" (as one critic put it of Der Abend Der Schwartzen Folklor), I sought out Brötzmann The Elder, expecting something a little more, um, staid. Could not have been more wrong. Dad made his son look positively mellow. With the Peter Brötzmann Octet behind him for this record (including two drummers, one afflicted with a horrible cold at the time of the recording), he earned his namesake in the first thirty blasting seconds, and most of the rest of the following seventeen minutes. And everything else thereafter for decades to come.
They call it "free" jazz for the same misinterpreted reason Buddhism calls things "emptiness". "Empty" in the sense of "empty of labels or definitions"; "free" in the sense of "free from restrictions". Not "empty" as in "nothing"; and not "free" as in "aimless". Even free jazz has its own rules, the rules that spring up between the members of a group operating on nothing but the mutual trust they have for each other. (The "gentle fire", to use the name another improv collective thunk up for themselves, by way of another term pinched from Buddhism.) The Nihilist Spasm Band proved it in their own homegrown way by showing how they could establish trust between a bunch of people who built their own instruments, couldn't play a "conventional" song on "conventional" gear (okay, they had a drummer, so what big deal), and yet somehow still make something. Not just music, but a collective presence, with the music as an artifact of that presence.
There are two moments on the title cut of this record that never fail to stop me cold. Both are about this kind of absolute togetherness as a group. The first is at about the thirteen minute mark. It sounds like the tape they used to record the session melted. It's not; it's the players. The second is at around the 15:15 mark, where in the middle of climactic chaos, apropos of absolutely nothing, the band starts playing a quasi-"When The Saints Go Marchin' In" riff that's rousing enough to get the audience to jump to its feet and conga-line with the band right out into traffic. They constitute two of the most willfully, gleefully perverse I have ever heard a band do, compounded further by it being a live performance and not studio trickery or tape manipulation or synthesizer gimmicks.
In the liner notes for one of Borbetomagus's albums -- I think it was Seven Reasons For Tears -- Byron Coley said something to the effect that you'd never believe there were only four people on the record, and that they were only human, given what earthmoving power they threw down. Well, there's eight of them on this one. Do the math. And it's not multiplication you need to perform. It's orders of magnitude.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind