Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber are one of the most amazing musical ensembles America has ever produced. Their catalog is a synthesis of virtually every strain of African-American music, plus modern composition, electronica, heavy metal and anything else that strikes their collective fancy. Their extended jams, conducted onstage and in the studio by Greg Tate, are like dippings from a dark and swirling river that runs through all of American history and all the way back to Africa, but with a powerful current drawing the listener into the future, even as influences from Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, David Bowie, and of course, of course, of course electric Miles Davis are lovingly acknowledged. They embody both what the Art Ensemble of Chicago called “Great Black Music…Ancient to the Future” and what Amiri Baraka referred to as “the changing same.”
The first Burnt Sugar album, Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1, was recorded in 1999 and released in November 2000. Its opening track, “Steals a Kiss From the Merman,” begins with bass and guitar noodling and three or so vocalists warming up in styles ranging from soul to opera, as a drummer counts in with sticks, at which point the band brings the hammer down with a riff one step to the left of Jimi Hendrix‘s “1983…A Merman I Should Turn to Be,” filtered through the heaviest metal. This one-minute snatch of music set the template for what was to come. Blood… was a collage of fragmentary psychedelic dub-jazz improvisations, some nudging the 14-minute mark and some barely there at all. It didn’t follow the conventional rules of an “album,” but it was dense, challenging, and mind-swirling enough to make you know you’d heard something…and want more.
In 2001, they released their follow-up, That Depends On What You Know. Its three(!) discs included interpretations of “Round Midnight,” “If There’s a Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go),” and “Castles Made of Sand,” alongside stunningly innovative, psychedelic-post-soul-jazz-funk-rock originals, all performed by a large coterie of players that included Vernon Reid and Kirk Douglas on guitars, Vijay Iyer on piano and organ, Qasim Naqvi on drums, and Lewis “Flip” Barnes on trumpet, among many others. It was originally released in August or September 2001, but since the three volumes have recently been uploaded to their Bandcamp page, it’s time for a look back.
They seemed intent on making it even less easy the second time. And yet, the sound had evolved already — a voice was developing. The first disc, The Sirens Return — Keep It Real ‘Til It Flatlines, began with “Two Bass Blipsch,” a nearly 18-minute piece that showcased upright bassist Jason DiMatteo and electric bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, with Naqvi’s taut, snapping snare rolls behind, and delicate, dubbed-out interjections of guitar and piano, as singer Lisala Beatty crooned soft wordless exhalations. It drew you in slowly, without any promise of a cathartic payoff; it was just an endless hypnotic trance groove. The next piece, “Screamin Arthur Jafa,” was even more atmospheric; it was almost 12 minutes long, a becalmed ocean of sound somewhere between Miles Davis‘s “He Loved Him Madly” and one of those bootlegs that’s nothing but the Grateful Dead‘s between-song tune-up sessions. Eventually, the energy level rose; the two-part title track, recorded live, featured wild, abstract post-metal guitar, eventually giving way to a wildly exhortatory vocal performance from rapper Mugabe. “(Bas) Kiss” reprised the opening track from Blood…, turning that glorious riff into a mournful reggae-metal song. The album concluded with a half-speed cover of Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand,” sung beautifully by Beatty, blended with an original, “May We Be Led Safely Through the Dreadful Ambush of Bardo,” which headed straight for the heart of the sun before bringing the listener safely back down to earth with gentle guitar, tabla, and some beautiful piano. 74 minutes in all, it was a towering statement, and they were only 1/3 of the way done.
The second album in the set, The Crepescularium, was 20 minutes shorter than its predecessor. It began with three three-minute tracks in a row. “Lunching with Mister Akhan” was a laptop collage, laying ambient flutes and synth washes over a pulsing disco rhythm that came in and out when you least expected it. “Kirk Bit My Hand” was a dubby instrumental, a showcase for guitarist Kirk Douglas‘s post-Eddie Hazel weeping-on-a-deserted-space-station shredtasticism. “No Poema Concrete Blues” feels like a short chunk of a much longer live piece; it’s a kind of primal wail, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs ululating and howling over loose post-blues guitar and rattling percussive bowls. After that, things start to stretch out. “The Crepescularium/At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)” tacks a slow-burning version of the 1977 Rufus & Chaka Khan hit onto an eight-minute jazz-meets-drum ‘n’ bass instrumental, adding up to nearly 14 minutes of music in all. That’s followed by a 10-minute psychedelic reshaping of Curtis Mayfield‘s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” that fades in and slooooowly comes together, swathed in echo and dub effects throughout its running time, and providing another showcase for some seriously warped space-rock guitar. “Fubractive,” recorded live at the same event as “No Poema Concrete Blues” (the mic crackle is the giveaway), features a long spoken diatribe about “fubraction” — short for full brain activity — from Shariff Simmons, plus a monster of a drum solo. Everything concludes with the 11-minute Soulquarian late-night jam “Take My Hand,” which points the way toward the postmodern R&B they’d explore in depth on 2006’s More Than Posthuman — Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion. The Crepescularium is the middle phase of this epic journey, and feels like it; the pieces are like dispatches beamed back from the Mothership centuries after it’s left Earth, headed for parts unknown.
The trilogy concluded with Fubractive Since Antiquity Suite, its title a seeming response to the Art Ensemble of Chicago‘s motto, cited above. The title track opened with a short passage of Bill Dixon-meets-Lester Bowie sputtering-and-squealing trumpet over sharp drum rattles. Then came vocal chants, hand percussion, and laptop interjections (a sampled exhortation, a huge programmed beat), more and more instruments coming in and falling into looped grooves which eventually, seamlessly, transformed into a rhythmic system that had nyabinghi drums, hip-hop beats, haunted jazz piano, the return of that fierce, reverb-warped trumpet (which soon began to do battle with itself via overdubbing), blues-clang guitar, and much more. It was as perfect an evocation of the group’s “everything into the pot” ethos as one could ask for. After that nearly 14-minute odyssey came another one of those decontextualized guitar solos (“The Sandpiper”), followed by “Fubractive B,” “Fubractive C,” and “Fubractive D,” a three-part variation on the title piece. “Fubractive B” featured a screaming guitar solo laid atop a laptop-disco groove, with congas and piano buried in the mix, too. On “Fubractive C,” which dropped us back into the action after only the briefest of fades, the piano was foregrounded and the beat is a little more house than disco, with what sounded like an orchestra attempting to recreate Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music during a pre-show tune-up in the left-hand speaker for a while. When that quieted down, the trumpets returned, then more guitar. After another brief fade, we were in the home stretch with “Fubractive D,” a five-minute storm cloud of guitar like Eddie Hazel borrowing Eddie Van Halen‘s “brown sound” and taking it for a spin. The revisitations continued with “Round About/At Midnight,” which grafted Thelonious Monk‘s classic onto the same Rufus & Chaka Khan song essayed on the previous disc — not a medley, a warping and melting down and congealing of the two compositions into one.
Black music has a mini-tradition of big, sprawling/splattering statement/manifesto albums: Prince‘s Sign ‘O’ the Times; Funkadelic‘s America Eats Its Young; Fishbone‘s The Reality of My Surroundings; the Wu-Tang Clan‘s Wu-Tang Forever; Stevie Wonder‘s Songs in the Key of Life; Miles Davis‘s Bitches Brew and perhaps even more aptly Get Up With It. This is the Interzone where Burnt Sugar chose to set up camp for That Depends On What You Know, a nearly three-and-a-half-hour journey through jazz, funk, rock, dub, blues, disco, house music, hip-hop, poetry, and sheer fuck-off noise. It’s a goddamn masterpiece, and 20 years later it still has the power to reshape your world. (They’re still at it; you can hear a currently exclusive new track, “Oakanda Spoonful,” on the Burning Ambulance Music compilation Eyes Shut, Ears Open.)
If you enjoy Burning Ambulance, consider supporting us on Patreon.