Friday, February 19, 2010
Hyrax, 1980; reissued by Atavistic; available
14 tracks, 32:10
This would be the infamous "no wave operetta". I'm not sure who to credit this to; most sources list it as either Mars and DNA, Mars alone, or Sumner Crane. Some even list the band name itself as John Gavanti! Anyways, this bizarre concept album features a whole slew of New York no wave's finest. Sumner Crane of Mars does most of the singing; he also wrote the (included) libretto and contributes 3-string guitar(!), piano, and percussion. Also from Mars are Don Burg (see the Mars review for her other stage names; bass clarinet, abstract vocals) and Mark Cunningham (horns). Ikue Mori from DNA contributes strings and, on two tracks, percussion; on one of these tracks, DNA's Arto Lindsay and his brother Duncan also contribute percussion. The music itself is in a universe all its own. For the most part the tracks don't rely on guitar noise for their distinctive atmosphere, focusing instead on the assorted horns, bass clarinet, and string sounds. This actually is one of the closest things to free jazz in the no wave archives, since most of the arrangements are improvised around Crane's demented vocal performance, but it also veers towards avant-garde theatre. About Crane: His vocals are absolutely jarring on first listen, but they do grow on you. His style is best explained as a cartoonish monster/fake ethnic hybrid, coming somewhere close to a slightly more intelligible Joseph Spence. Given that the surprisingly coherent plot is a deranged remake of the classic opera DON GIOVANNI, his vocals are a perfect fit. However, I don't recall Don Juan seducing lionesses and grandmothers "in the beautiful autumn of life", but hey, artistic license. You really have to love an operetta with the classic lines "Oh Ancient Ocean!/You are nothing!/Vast you may be!/Next to me what are you?/I am beautiful pink and you are stinky green!" Did I mention the first thing John does, upon waking up in his volcano, is drink a glass of lava? Yep, you read that correctly. From that point on, Gavanti brags, boasts, travels the world, seduces literally EVERY female that catches his attention, is reunited with his long-lost assistant John Yellow, has his arm torn off by a white statue (but he has a spare at home, so it's alright!), and finally rides off into the sunset with the grandmother. Naturally, it's not quite as simple as that, but that's the general plot anyway. Burg contributes surprisingly tender lead vocals to "Mirror Mirror", and the track with the Lindsay brothers is a fairly straightforward samba piece, but the rest is pure avant-garde heaven for any experimental rock fan. It's worth noting that ths was recorded at Sear Sound studios, an all-vacuum-tube-equipment studio (most famous for being where Sonic Youth later recorded SISTER). You should definitely get the Mars and DNA retrospectives first before diving into this, but it certainly belongs in any good no wave/experimental collection.
Please visit the following link for Mark Cunningham's insight on the album, as well as some tidbits about the fan video (!): http://www.convolution7.ws/mark/bands/john.htm