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Perhaps the best—or only good—aspect of Lungfish’s “not currently active” status is that singer Daniel Higgs is releasing solo records at an impressive clip. In just 13 months, the Baltimore trance-punk act’s heavily bearded frontman has released three full-lengths, one of which, Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot, comes with a hardcover book of his psychedelic artwork.
Higgs’ droney, acid-folky latest, Metempsychotic Melodies, which is out now on the excellent Holy Mountain label, is more or less essential for Lungfish fans. But, for the uninitiated, it is no better an entry point than any other record in the Higgs canon.
In his new book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff writes about artists like Higgs, musicians who seem to do nothing but work toward a single idea. “Many great musicians—Ali Akbar Khan, Björk, James Brown—essentially create their art as chunks of an ongoing discourse,” he writes. “The stronger the work is, the more it becomes a matter of sound rather than notes.”
Not too long ago, I wrote something similar about another Holy Mountain act, Om (a band that shares its name with one of John Coltrane’s later records).
By and large, the two songs on Om’s second full-length, Conference of the Birds—a title borrowed from Dave Holland’s ’70s free-jazz classic—offer mere variations on [the band’s first record] Variations. [Al] Cisneros seems to write the same bass line over and over again, which works because, hey, it’s a really good bass line. Loopy without being static, Cisneros’ playing twists and winds and folds back on itself, making Om’s five songs to date seem less like distinctive compositions than details from a larger work. The effect is of a band always playing somewhere—probably on a mountaintop or near something monolithic.
The same could pretty much be said of Lungfish and Higgs. To my mind, though, no one has written a more definitive piece on Charm City’s finest than my pal Joe Gross. This passage from his Chicago Reader review of the band’s 2000 album Necrophones gets at the very essence of this cult act and its otherworldly frontman.
Imagine a gnostic Ramones or an AC/DC peopled by Kabbalah scholars. Perhaps taking too seriously the old Lou Reed dictum that anything over three chords puts you into jazz territory, the Baltimore-based quartet has built whole, mesmerizing albums out of four or five notes. And as a lyricist, front man Daniel Higgs, at least according to Alan Kaufman, editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, is nothing less than the intellectual heir to poet Kenneth Patchen. (Memo to R. Meltzer: if you’re still looking for visionary postbeat rock music in the 21st century, buy the entire discography tomorrow.)
A veteran of the late-80s and early-90s performance-poetry scene, Higgs is 36 going on infinity. He cuts a striking figure with his rabbinical beard, myriad tattoos, and head-to-toe heavy clothing (he’s been known to wear two pairs of pants at once). Onstage, in front of the pathologically repetitious guitar-bass-drums drone of Asa Osborne, Nathan Bell, and Mitchell Feldstein, he’s riveting; if he’s not standing stock-still, he’s fiendishly contorting his face or trying to climb an invisible ladder. Sometimes he’s a preacher, preaching the gospel according to the plants and the animals; sometimes he’s the flowers themselves, opening their mouths and screaming.
Of all the guy’s attributes, the thing that is perhaps most impressive is Higgs’ ability to reduce the most cynical music fans to uncynical adoration. This puts him in excellent company. Tom Waits and Scott Walker—to name but two—do pretty much the same thing. Are they the real deal or jackdaws in peacock’s feathers? Of those who have seen him perform, what do you think about Higgs?