Sun Ra / Merzbow
UK COLD SPRING RECORDS CSR228CD (2016)
A pretty overpowering blast here from Masami Akita as he applies his “remix” and noise skills to the music of Sun Ra. I’m really not sure if I like it or not. I’ve been enjoying the music of the Sun Ra Arkestra from a long time now, and it’s encouraging (though slightly bewildering) to find how his music has somehow become fashionable, especially with younger broad-minded listeners, after being despised or ignored by many jazz purists during the man’s lifetime. And of course we’ve also supported Merzbow as the supremo Rolls-Royce maestro of precision noise pretty much since we started this magazine, and Jennifer Hor is one who has enthusiastically stepped up to sing his praises in the noise arena. Today though we’re dealing with one of those post-modern hybrid experiments, informed by a reckless try-anything spirit that delights in forming melds and mergers between incompatible genres, perhaps in the name of breaking down barriers and broadening the taste horizons of a thousand young polymorphous listeners. Although since those same listeners now have such a glut of music to enjoy, perhaps this kind of excessive noise-jazz chimera is the only way we can get their attention, or just make ourselves feel anything.
It’s not exactly a collaboration between Merzbow and Sun Ra. When Merzbow collaborated with Richard Pinhas or Genesis P. Orridge, he teamed up with a living musician and they made sounds together, often live and in real time. This particular release is more like a collaboration with Irwin Chusid, who licensed tracks from the Sun Ra archive for Merzbow’s remixing purposes; Justin Mitchell of Cold Spring Records may have been involved in the negotiation process to get the tapes into Masami’s mitts. I may be splitting hairs, but Merzbow is working exclusively with recorded music for this one; members of the current Arkestra have not been personally involved, as far as I can make out. Were they even asked about the project? As to the provenance of the source materials, this isn’t crystal clear; some say it’s derived from Strange Strings and The Magic City, hence the album title which merges them into a single line. But the press release states “rare and unreleased tracks” were involved. Strange Strings and The Magic City may be rare records, but they were not unreleased.
On the CD I have in front of me, there are two long cuts over 30 mins each – ‘Livid Sun Loop’ and ‘Granular Jazz Part 2’ are fantastic titles, and remind us that Merzbow has kick-started (or put the boot in to) free jazz records before, such as on the groovy record Door Open At 8 AM from 1999, which sampled Tony Williams Lifetime and John Coltrane. ‘Livid Sun Loop’ could almost be a Sun Ra title, but it’s two-thirds Masami Akita; you know how much he loves to refer to his method (looping) and to the use of excessive adjectives to make the music even more threatening than it already is. ‘Livid Sun Loop’ sounds like something from outer space that would give you an incurable disease, an unstoppable cancer that changes the colour of your skin to a mottled grey. That may be the idea. The music he wreaks on this track has the same relentless quality of an invasive disease. I suppose you could say he’s captured the energy of the Arkestra, and perhaps hinted at the sheer weirdness of Sun Ra himself. But whatever free jazz has survived is buried in a thick wodge of noise, much like diamonds in clay. Admittedly, fragments of Arkestra music are recognisable in the few gaps of breathing space that are left us, but here again it’s two-thirds Masami Akita, as he occupies and colonises every available inch of the ether. Sun Ra Arkestra horns, strings, and piano fragments leak out in among modern, digitally-crunched, metallic harsh noise; the jazz parts feel like ancient archaeological fragments, barely daring to assert their significance in today’s uncaring world.
And yet, I found myself enjoying the futuristic electronic swoops that Merzbow belches out of his follicles so effortlessly, and wondering to myself if these noises didn’t count as an authentic update on the outer-space, space-travel, sci-fi themes that Sun Ra made his very own. In places, ‘Livid Sun Loop’ could take its place among the strangest recordings in the Ra discography, including Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy. I have no doubt that Merzbow has heard and loved every known Sun Ra recording, and more besides. On the other hand, he clearly has no desire to replicate the subtlety and ellipsis of the 1960s work, nor any interest in leaving gaps in the continuous tidal wave of noise. I also miss the percussion, which was one of the group’s strongest skill-sets; I think a few precious moments of Arkestra drumming may surface, but not much. However, Merzbow (who used to be a drummer) knows about rhythm, and it’s not too far-out to think he’s set Sun Ra music to a complex, intense and multi-layered beat, and it will take us several spins to truly get to the groove.
‘Granular Jazz Part 2’ is even more overwhelming, rushing past at such high speeds and overlaid with so much debris that eventually it becomes a blur; I’m unable to make out any Sun Ra presence in this tornado, but his serene figure may be sitting somewhere in the epicentre of the storm. It’s like Metal Machine Music on speed; buried melodies and pulsing rhythms thrashing it out against non-musical feedback and electronic swoops. The entire El Saturn catalogue overlaid with itself like some multiple-exposure movie. Masami Akita may see free jazz as an all-out explosion of wild, inchoate energy; that’s certainly what comes across on this spin.
If you enjoy this and find yourself hungry for more, you need to buy the vinyl edition as well as the CD; though the covers are the same, the contents are completely different, and only by buying the black or yellow vinyl edition will you hear the other three parts of ‘Granular Jazz’. Beautiful cover art is by Abby Helasdottir. From 17 October 2016.