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Over the past 30 years, guitarist Fred Frith has plugged in with everyone from quick-change punk-metal pioneers Naked City to modern-classical group Ensemble Modern. Yet improv power trio Massacre—which released its ebullient debut, Killing Time, back in 1981—is the sole Frith project that has successfully reconciled his inclinations for aggro rock ‘n’ roll and serious art music.
Though it’s a truism that nothing sucks like bad improvisation, there’s not much better in this life than hearing top-flight free-form. The all-instrumental Massacre, which also features bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Charles Hayward, is one of those lonely rock groups that falls into that rarefied latter category. Not only do these guys understand the greasy fun of classic rock—Frith is a fan of Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend—but they also have the chops to pull off the complexities of Charlie Haden’s “Song for Che.”
When Frith got his start with studied, urbane British prog rockers Henry Cow, in 1968, he prepared no one for the bleeding-ear fury he would unleash after moving to the Big Apple and founding Massacre in 1978. Hooking up with Laswell and drummer Fred Maher, Frith turned from quiet lines, jazz clusters, and melodic intervals to overdriven amps, choppy chording, and palm-muted string-scraping. In response, his bandmates, clearly influenced by the post-punk coming out of England at the time, cranked out fractured funk and Jamaican rhythms, creating some unexpectedly wicked up-tempo art rock. Frith & Co. were the best of New York’s No Wave scene—perhaps because, unlike compatriots such as DNA and Mars, they could actually play their instruments.
But bad blood sent the three their separate ways in 1981. Frith spent much of his subsequent time working the artier side of things by free-improvising with folks such as John Zorn and Derek Bailey and composing works for classical ensembles. But when Frith and Laswell reconvened for Massacre’s second disc, 1998’s Funny Valentine, it turned out that not much had changed: Frith still did his best disgruntled-guitar-shop-employee impersonation while Laswell made fart jokes on his bass. Granted, new drummer Hayward, veteran of the brilliant British post-punk outfit This Heat, possesses a much lighter touch than Maher, but Funny Valentine still has plenty of punk-as-fuck pounding to go with all its skittery jazz.
Despite its title, the new Meltdown is less about goin’ crazy than about goin’, well, somewhere else. Beginning with a languid cymbal dance from Hayward (“Up for It”) and ending with thick waves of Hendrixian feedback from Frith (“Over”), the album runs the gamut from ambient to psych to plain ol’ evil noise. Frith & Co. grab influences from the last half of the 20th century as if they were playing a game of musical free association: “Hover” comes off like King Crimson covering Rapeman’s ZZ Top-edelic “Trouser Minnow,” “For Food and Scatter” finds Frith spraying cool-jazz shrapnel over Laswell and Hayward’s gutbucket dub grind, and “Song for Che” turns the classic protest-jazz track into an unhinged electric-blues dirge.
At more than 25 minutes, “Figure Out” is perhaps the best example of Meltdown’s scope. Beginning with Frith shooting out heavily effected almost-electronica over a King Tubby-esque groove, the guitarist’s improvising moves through slurry blues runs to squiggly jazz hammer-ons to jittery rhythmic skronk. The whole thing ends with Frith floating a subdued few notes under Hayward’s spare melodica lines.
Being all over the place works to both Massacre’s advantage and its detriment: Meltdown is easily the group’s most diverse release yet, but, as such, it lacks the brutal focus of Killing Time or Funny Valentine. And though Frith never gets tripped up exploring all ends of the musical universe and Hayward’s playing is relatively conservative, Laswell—a red flag in just about any context—noodles too damn much. On the disc-closing “Over,” for example, he chews up the scenery with sub-Jack Bruce bass wankage, diffusing the impact of Frith’s perfectly attention-worthy jagged-blues solo.
Nonetheless, Meltdown is a great chunk of improvised rock. And Massacre remains the best way to hear the full range of Frith’s expansive guitar language. He must know that, ’cause he can’t seem to let it go.
New Jersey quintet Burnt by the Sun takes the opposite approach on its debut full-length, Soundtrack to the Personal Revolution, playing tightly composed rock ‘n’ roll that journeys from the A of metal to the Z of hardcore. Like a cooler, smarter cousin of those clownish nu-metal bands, Burnt by the Sun clearly believes that good, heavy guitar sounds shouldn’t be ghettoized as a guilty pleasure. But instead of ruining metal’s chocolate with someone else’s peanut butter, the band strips away as much ridiculousness as possible from a much-maligned form and leaves it at that.
What’s left over is neither revolutionary nor poetic—hell, these guys are even too modest for choruses—but it’s nonetheless one of the most intelligent metal records you’ll hear this year. That’s mainly because Burnt by the Sun—which takes its name from Nikita Mikhalkov’s Academy Award-winning 1994 flick—refuses to equate metal fandom with conceptual extremism. The picture this soundtrack evokes is that of folks going to work, hating it, and then deadening their pain with Marshall amps and lots of video rentals. With the exception of a few “fuck”s from vocalist Michael Olender, there’s really nothing here—lyrically or otherwise—that Mom and Dad would disapprove of.
Except for the music, that is. Like Meltdown, Soundtrack to the Personal Revolution is all about the electric guitar: The first thing out of the speakers is some absurdly gruesome rhythmic crunch recalling the glory days of Am Rep Records. But in less time than it would take Dokken to hit the post-show hot tubs, six-stringers John Adubato and Chris Rascio have already scurried through drop-tuned death riffage, blurry blackened noise, and vertiginous high-pitched arpeggios. Before Olender even has anything to grunt (first line: “I’m staring into the sun, waiting for it to fall down”), he’s been upstaged. And that’s only the first song, “Dracula With Glasses.”
In classic metalcore form, the guys keep their songs short, eschew solos, and focus on close-to-home topics. In “Dow Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Adubato and Rascio wrestle with chugging octave-chord harmonies as Olender questions America’s unofficial religion: “Existing only in your head/Working for the economy/But is this working for you?” “Boston Tea-Bag Party,” buoyed by catchy harmonics and drummer Dave Witte’s midtempo post-punk pummel, offers a similar economic outlook: “Let’s look at the facts,” Olender growls, “we’re sidetracked by how much we’re being taxed/What little regard we have for human life.” And “Human Steamroller” is a blues for the 40-hour-week malaise, driven by a flurry of tendinitis-inducing hammer-ons: “Another track please/On the wrong track, step back please/You’re going nowhere fast.”
“It’s so fucking twisted,” Olender screams on “Famke,” and, liner-note nods to American History X, Fight Club, and A Bronx Tale notwithstanding, he ain’t talkin’ about the elusive charm of Ms. Janssen. No, this guy is more concerned with consumption lust as reinforced by the insidious presence of the entertainment industry in our meagre little lives: “Beauty in my mind defined by images shot into my mind/Brain scan/Observe the man I am…./One day I’m awake/The next day I’m dead/This is not real/This I know/But it calls on me.” But the dudes in Burnt by the Sun aren’t so much anti-capitalism—they’ve got a record to sell, fer Chrissakes—as they are pro-self-examination. They’re just grasping for some kind of meaning to life: “How does this work?”
Even if they don’t have any answers, they certainly ask all the right questions. And Soundtrack to the Personal Revolution lands all the way at the top of the metal heap not only because it’s a concise piece of ass-kickin’ but also because it’s searching for something better. CP