Back in February, I interviewed Bill Laswell, and toward the end of our conversation, when we were talking about his relationship to metal (which has been fractious – members of White Zombie and Motörhead frequently decry the albums he produced for them), he told me, “I just did a recording with a drummer from Sweden, Morgen Ågren, and his approach is very advanced and incredibly complex. I guess you could say derivative of metal. And my approach was something else. And we did a recording with Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim. So that kind of borders on a mutant sort of metal.” I was genuinely curious to hear that record, because I’ve heard a few other CDs by Björkenheim, with his own Scorch Trio and in a couple of other contexts.
He’s an interesting guitarist – post-Hendrixian in his use of distortion and overdriven amps, but I hear echoes of Caspar Brötzmann, Blind Idiot God‘s Andy Hawkins, too, and plenty of other modern dudes who play in a hard rock/metal style without actually being in a metal band. Scorch Trio is an old-fashioned power trio, with Björkenheim’s very electric guitar tracked by bass and drums through compositions that are basically riff-based platforms for lengthy bouts of aggressive, noisy soloing. It reminds me of stuff Hendrix was doing in the last year of his life, crossed with mid’70s fusion like Tony Williams Lifetime or the short-lived Trio of Doom (John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius and Williams). Blixt sounds somewhat similar to Scorch Trio material, albeit with Laswell’s bass bubbling up and constantly threatening to take over the mix. He’s using the same filters and effects he always does, the ones that can work either really well or stick out horribly (as he did on the Purple Trap CD he made with guitarist Keiji Haino and drummer Rashied Ali). Most of the time on Blixt, Laswell’s bass sound is great for the music, though. He locks in well with drummer Ågren, creating stuttering funk-rock grooves over which Björkenheim tears it up in a style that’s indebted to ’70s hard rock as much as it is to ’90s postpunk noise-rock. If you can imagine Ronnie Montrose sitting in with Helmet, with frequent outbursts of urban dub, you’ve got some idea of what you’ll hear on Blixt. It’s got to be pointed out that Ågren’s drum sound is pretty weird; his toms sound like plastic coffee cans. But his playing is ferocious, so the strangeness of his tone only becomes distracting a few times. The biggest problem the album has is probably the low-stakes feel it has. This never seems like the product of a working band (which it’s not); it’s the result of a day in the studio. Some pieces are built around riffs, but the majority are pure improv, and it gets pretty damn noticeable at times. It’s the equivalent of a 1950s hard bop blowing session, but these guys aren’t playing the blues. Maybe if they were, some of this music would stick in the mind a little more firmly. But honestly, as impressively pyrotechnic as its best moments are, Blixt flies by and leaves very little impression when it’s over.
Forgettability is the least of the problems with the self-titled CD by Levin Torn White, the trio of bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, guitarist and effects-ist David Torn, and drummer Alan White (yes, the Yes guy). Levin is probably best known for being a member of King Crimson during the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, though he also played with Peter Gabriel for years (I saw him with Gabriel on the So tour in 1986) and was a part of Liquid Tension Experiment with Dream Theater‘s John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess and Mike Portnoy. He also played on David Torn‘s 1986 album Cloud About Mercury. Torn is a peripatetic player who’s released a half dozen or so discs under his own name, one of which, 2007’s Prezens, impressed me a lot at the time. On it, his electronic manipulations of live-band performances by saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey (plus his own guitar work) sounded like what Rene Akhan and Morgan Craft were doing with Burnt Sugar, or Gary Smith‘s “stereo guitar” music: bursts of scattering electronic tones thinly disguised as guitar riffs. White I only know from Yes.
Here’s the problem with Levin Torn White: It’s every bit as hasty and ad hoc as the Björkenheim/Laswell/Ågren disc, but even more produced. White’s drums don’t even sound like they were played by a human. They’re gated into airless thwacking, and at times sound like individual drum hits were programmed onto a grid, like what Meshuggah did on Catch Thirtythr33. Levin switches back and forth between bass and Chapman Stick, depending on the track. His bass sound is fine, but when he plays the Stick, it reminds me of Frank Zappa‘s late ’80s infatuation with the Synclavier—twiddly, bouncy countermelodies that scream Guitar Center. Torn’s guitar work is extremely fierce and scorching, but at the same time there’s a digital pristine-ness to even his wildest bursts of distortion that’s really kind of off-putting. There’s not a whiff of room sound to be heard anywhere on this album. This YouTube video proves that Torn and Levin were in the same room at the same time, but if I hadn’t seen it, listening to the CD would not have given me that impression.
Ultimately, this kind of high-tech prog is almost posthuman in its enthusiasm for gleaming, frictionless surfaces. Torn plays a Fender Stratocaster at times on this disc, and an acoustic, too, but somehow he always winds up sounding like he’s playing one of those headless guitars with the tiny, trapezoidal solid bodies. And White sounds like he recorded his parts in the mid-1980s—they’re so booming and artificial, they could have been pulled from an early Robert Plant solo album. And just like Blixt, there’s not a single memorable composition to be heard. It’s just riff-riff-explosion-riff, and on to the next one. Torn and Levin may know everything there is to know about their highly customized instruments, but if they ever knew how to write a song, they’ve long since forgotten. If all you want is the empty calories of technical brilliance, great. I need more, and nobody on either of these two CDs was able to provide it.