The Rest is Only Sky: Bill Laswell and Laraaji in Concert

Bill Laswell and Laraaji, with Ka Baird
Ambient Church
Bushwick United Methodist
Brooklyn, NY
December 16, 2017

The space is an introduction: the moment you walk into it, you’ve turned the first page. Walls and ceiling comprise the shell of a body memorialized by the reverberations of its weekly visitations: a “church,” you might call it, but whose actual name lies buried in the speech of those who’ve forgotten it. Headlights peer through stained glass and into the hearts of everyone who has come to listen. This place, you realize, has chosen you as its resurrection vessel, a memory stepping out of the haze as an itinerant preacher whose only scripture disintegrated long ago as padding for worn-out shoes.

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Looking above and behind, you notice a beam of light: a “projector,” you might call it, but whose actual name floats preserved in minds of the technically inclined. The light stretches forth its arm, seeking a surface as a mudra would its vibrational link, until the skin of musician Ka Baird opens millions of tiny wings.

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Her activations, privately ordained yet congregationally shared, uncover your ears with all the wakefulness of a sunrise recounted after sunset. By means of an instrumentarium that in any other context would pay secular homage at best to its origins, Baird unpacks her motifs at the molecular level. Threading prismatic arias through a chittering forest, looping her flute in recurring dreams of possession all the while, she refracts the self until it exhales a world apart. With each sustain, a thought reaches its climax, while echoes of a new beginning carve hieroglyphics of courage across your forehead. She fills her mouth with galactic marbles, shooting each into an unwritten future.

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Between dimensions, chains of conversation re-link themselves. Still, you stand alone, drinking in all those breaths as if they were a sutra exploded. The ceiling opens its eyes as a wall socket cannot close them and holds those depths close, a blanket against the cold.

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The effect is such that by the time Bill Laswell and Laraaji draw their own curtain through the room, you’ve already turned inside out. What were once your ears are now your optical nerves, and vice versa. Amid a landscape of water and choral winds, Laraaji’s amplified zither is his field. Be it struck, bowed, plucked, hammered, brushed, or strummed, its language compounds the allure of burning magnesium, minus the threat of blindness. Each of its strings feels attached to something unseen. His mbira likewise treads with care, a clock’s dream made real.

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Laswell’s bass is his talisman, a slab of wood and wire plucked from its heavy metal roots and transfused with a tambura’s drone-blood. His lines emerge, organic as they are brief, from the gift of spontaneous generation. Their patterns begin to match your own, following rhythms that tremble far below the floorboards. Without a map to follow, that which is written migrates into territories of the spoken, so that only poetry seems able to convey the prosaic spectrum of experience.

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Whether singing or laughing, their voices are shimmering shadows. Like the incense wafting about the pews, their dimensions stretch the nostrils of your soul into canvases, across which to plot every fragrant constellation in a blush of indigo promise. All of which points to one truth: the groove is Earth, the rest is only sky.

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Live Report: Method of Defiance at Roulette (Brooklyn)

MOD poster

On 20 June 2016, bassist and dark-matter stylist Bill Laswell convened the latest incarnation of his Method of Defiance outfit at the Roulette performance space in Brooklyn to celebrate the Downtown Music Gallery’s 25th anniversary. Joining Laswell were Dr. Israel (beats, vocals), Garrison Hawk (vocals), D.J. Logic (turntable, laptop), Josh Werner (bass, keyboards), Graham Haynes (cornet), and Guy Licata (drums), along with special guest Mike Sopko (guitar). The latter’s avant-leaning tendencies threw fistfuls of sparks at the audience, surpassed in heat only by Hawk’s incendiary spit and Laswell’s embers. Yet behind them was an invisible ninth member whose contributions were palpable throughout—the reflection of some connective spirit that drew everyone into the same line of purpose.

Ever at the core of whatever they attend, Laswell and his bass were a binary force of reckoning. Together they prepped the space with characteristic sagacity. Werner’s electronic detailing gave first indications of landscape, discernible though not yet solid until Licata’s drum ‘n’ bass vibes hit the ground running. His wake left an open wound in the earth, revealing an igneous groove, while Haynes sprouted a tree for every leaf burned by the force of the environmental disruption.

In this, the first of eight songs, innovations and comforts bled themselves in search of hybrid hemoglobin. Israel’s vocals, wrapped in heavy echo, proved that the Dr. was very much in the house when he negotiated crunchy dub textures as might a chameleon revel in a rainbow. And when the other wordsmith took to the stage, showing that hawks are every bit as cunning on the ground as in the air, he tempered flames with descriptions of raw deals and rawer emotions.

Sopko’s sere guitar kept things randomized, and only served to emphasize the importance of every utterance, so that whenever a mouth was opened, so too were listener’s minds to receive its wisdom. Some of the most gripping portions of the set, in fact, found Israel and Hawk involved in deeply semantic transactions, each a firebrand of his own design, sandwiched between gray destruction and lavender rebuilding. All the while, Laswell’s bass undermined the fragile house of convention.

Not all was so apocalyptic, as ambience prevailed along the way. Whether in Werner’s triadic lullabies or the bandleader’s swooping improvisations, such tenderer moments were calls to arms for those without them. During one memorable tune, Logic intertwined griot sampling with Laswell’s harmonic equations while Haynes channeled messages from seemingly nonhuman sources.

At one point, Werner traded keys for bass (even the sun needs to recover beyond the horizon), provoking comparable head nods through a haze of guitar marginalia (Sopko resolving monumental tensions with Buckethead-like release) and tight drumming. And as Israel dropped his champion’s badge in the pond to distort the face of one who needed it not for validation, the risk of it all paid its ultimate dividends through an apparent axiom: A strong core, no matter how distorted the surface surrounding it, compromises for no one.

MOD portraits

Last Exit: Iron Path

Iron Path

League-of-his-own guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Subterranean saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Atmospheric bassist Bill Laswell. Former Albert Ayler drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Alone, each is a power tower of musical ideation. Together, they blind the sun. In 1988, these free-jazz atoms bonded to unleash their only studio molecule. Now remastered for the 21st century, it bleeds redder than ever.

Like Everyman Band before them or Krakatau after, Last Exit pummels through walls of expectation as if they were made of feathers. From these they fashion a giant pair of wings across 10 spines of reality. As Steve Lake so reverently describes in his liner notes: “There’s no false modesty in Last Exit, no false anything. The group is important precisely because its rush of sound is a heartfelt force. It sweeps away all the fakery that proliferates on both sides of the highbrow/lowbrow cultural divide.” None of that flavor has dulled these last three decades, and if anything has grown more piquant with age.

The most obvious politic at play on the scale of Iron Path is its balancing of opposites. “Prayer” feels like anything but as a growling bass eats into the foreground, one pathos-ridden chew at a time. But as the terminal illness of its build reaches a plateau, bells of immolation toll for those with water. Guitar and drums power through resistance like berserker prospectors panning for untranslated scriptures. And these they find in the proffered wisdom of Brötzmann’s horn, which by virtue of prophecy spews all of its treasures for the taking. So does “Marked For Death” reveal its hidden meanings with patience. Brötzmann’s soloing exemplifies the restraint required to unleash such morbid finality. In “Eye For An Eye,” too, Laswell blows smoke through gritted teeth: a mountain pushed through a chain-link fence, to the call of an interspace chant.

Some tracks are purposefully grounded in the everyday. “The Black Bat,” for instance, bears dedication to Japanese producer Aki Ikuta, who tragically died at the age of 33 as the result of a car accident the year this album was recorded. His restless spirit echoes throughout this piece, in which colors swirl into mournful timbre. Other passages are more obscure and require further peeling of the ears to appreciate. The title track, with its eastern infusions, whispers of simulacra slashed across time, while “Devil’s Rain” finds Sharrock rocking the cinematic edge as Brötzmann lobs the heart of a volcano into the exosphere.

“The Fire Drum” is one of two blatantly descriptive turns, boasting comet streaks of brilliance from the guitarist and reedman. “Sand Dancer,” on the other hand, is Laswell’s electric phoenix all the way. And if these seem too grounded in their spaces, one needn’t worry, as both “Detonator” and “Cut And Run” hybridize aggressive haunts with tidal preaching, until only one piece of advice remains: Structural failures are the birth of monumental impulse.

(For more information, and to hear samples, click here.)

Milford Graves & Bill Laswell: Space/Time Redemption

Space Time Redemption

The first studio duet of drummer Milford Graves and bassist Bill Laswell, both yielding warriors of their respective dark arts, is a selfless proclamation. Residing in their speech is the yin for the other’s yang, a drop of sun for moon.

In approaching this vessel, one does better to go below decks from the first sounding, interpreting this axis from its crux outward. And toward the end, we have that very intersection in the form of “Autopossession.” More than a title, it is a mission statement by which the body is rendered inert through spiritual process. Being a solo from Graves, it melts surrounding ice, stopping just before it reaches steam. Thought and action likewise turn into liquid. But the drummer’s is more than a beat-driven consciousness, for here the specter of regularity serves only as the reminder of a talismanic past. If the head nods at all, it is because the mind has left it behind.

Regressing a level of reality gives us “Eternal Signs,” one of four collaborative improvisations that include “Another Space” and “Another Time.” Each is a ring linked to the others in a multidirectional chain of being. Drums and bass serve as equal partners, connected by lightyears of shared experience. The energy seems violent in origin, even as it breeds nothing but harmony. A pliant strum or forceful tap: either closes the gate as easily as opening it, sealing terror exhaust from the inevitability of inhalation. The more such improvising develops, the more macroscopic it becomes, crumbling outward in an explosion of planetary dimensions. It is the repression of history, demystified in music.

Yet the most willful approach reverberates throughout the dedicatory “Sonny Sharrock,” which like its namesake unwinds the familiar into unexpected filament. Laswell applies an echo effect, allowing it to float above the ionosphere of influence over which his instrument’s dreams wander. Amid gamelan-like touches from Graves, he adds flame upon gnashing flame, so that oxygen expends itself at shaman’s touch. There is a shape to that fire, one that flits between human and animal with the unpredictability of an autumn leaf’s path. Percussive chemicals seep into those four heavy strings, while the drums eject prophecy from the pilot’s seat in favor of crash landings, leaving Laswell’s branch-bending scriptures to flutter alone in the final breeze.

There is no mystery, other than the space to which the album’s title refers. It would seem to be our own by virtue of our listening, organ-less and multiple, a mirror fogged by the breaths of gods too far away to see yet too close not to sense in the shifting of tress at night just before sleep shades your retinas. But on closer inspection the reflection is that of a star child breastfed on shadow, now spitting words of light for our foraging. It returns the gaze and whispers: Wings were not invented for flight, but flight for wings.

(Available at Amazon here.)

Barton Rage & Bill Laswell: Realm 1

Realm I

For this first installment of the “Realm” series of concept albums on the M.O.D. Technologies label, wherein artists are free walk their own paths even when those paths crumble from beneath their feet, Bill Laswell and Barton Rage combine heat sources to forge an ambient talisman that is sure to haunt you with its protections.

Hints of orchestras and long-playing melodies, each the ancestor of a solitary listener, learns the art of flotation right before us. Gloomy, perhaps, but only because darkness is sensed by the ears as light by the eyes. For in the darkness there is a sound which wilts at misinterpretation and blossoms when taken on its own terms. Barest hints of drumming flicker in and out of frame, while lower lines take shape as pure sonic reckoning, their compasses burrowing into skin unaware of their own mapping. A meditation made reality. This is “Mater.”

Clicking of cymbal and drum, an echo chamber that knows not the wrath of an open gate. Rather, it peers into the heart of things. The duo’s to-the-marrow methodology braids time signatures so tightly that the sun no longer reflects off them. A flash of song. An electronic insect attracted to pheromones emitted by throat and wrists. Laswell’s bass cannot help but lumber through the landscapes of its upbringing with sketchbook in hand. The confluence of machinery and sinews is the decoration, not the anchor, of this evolving tree, around which leaves dance in the wind like a child waiting for an embrace. This is “Waters of Mirage.”

Globular, uncertain arcs bow before a sacred dub altar, on which has been left offerings of star-bound digitalia. The signal is incomplete, its transmitter having broken eons ago in a moment of distress during some mission no one remembers. Synthesized trumpet breaths channel a chasm of death into automatic life, drinking in the scent of fortune to get away from the smoke. A pause before drum ‘n’ bass snakes shed their skins. A groovier test of faith through dance music for isolationists. This is “Triad Seer.”

A watery expanse larger than any ocean on Earth. A smooth undertow, amphibian and pliant. Funkier textures unfold wings of air, ephemeral yet alive. This is “Seraphim.”

A freer space ensues, prowling caves for want of ore. Weightless spaces intertwine with heavier drops of thought. This is “Beyond the Abyss.”

A melodic fractal, in the mode of guitarist Jeff Pearce, though with a murkier pulse. The finality here is heavy with cinema. This is “Nama.”

I haven’t been moved in this particular way since Mick Harris’s Somnific Flux, a 1995 collaboration with Laswell on Subharmonic. Such nostalgic threads also pull me back to Cypher 7’s Decoder (released the year before on Strata), bringing together past and future in a single, protracted blink. Let’s have more of this.

Wadada Leo Smith & Bill Laswell: Akashic Meditation

Akashic Meditation

Soul-seeking trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and sought soul, bassist Bill Laswell, recorded live at New York City’s The Stone on April 22, 2014. A metropolis unto themselves, built by a masonry of interlocking musicality.

In this spontaneous set, listeners may open their eyes, only to find themselves behind another’s closed. Laswell slows the dance of time to near-stillness, so that every contraction of every muscle may be studied. Smith’s entry comes from within rather than from without, portioning flesh on scales counterweighted with virtue. Consciousness on either side denies the illusion of consensus reality and offers a purely sound-based alternative in its place. The psycho-sphere of these spiraling prevarications acts as glue for a jagged infrastructure.

Laswell has a leviathan’s heart for this stuff. His bass flashes and writhes with intrigue, far more than the sum of its plastic, wood, and strings. And because the machinations of that instrument rotate on linguistic axes, a sense of communication is vital to understanding his improvisational cartography. It is at one moment a bodhisattva of desert suns, the next a dying gamelan courting the moon. It listens to its own heartbeat and tracks the decimation of rhythms.

Smith, for his part, treats the skin as a palimpsest of discovery. His breath, the written word to Laswell’s speech, resonates through a brass menagerie of travel. As distant as he is present, he is a nomad in search of the next melodic attachment.

Distortions in both look back with forward eyes as regularity subsumes, is subsumed, and touches off a limpid and final spark after an elliptical net catches Smith’s reborn self.

The Akashic meditation is not a conversation but a conversion. A reverse alchemy that turns gold into lead. Here you will find no towering, canonical monuments, but only ruins of such raw power that every crumbling edifice yields the scripture of change.

(For more information, visit M.O.D. Technologies here.)

Milford Graves & Bill Laswell: Back In No Time

Back In No Time

Drummer Milford Graves and bassist Bill Laswell, live at The Stone in New York City. Two stalwarts of their respective instruments, passing in the night on April 22, 2014. Separately: wanderers of this musical world, toting satchels of invention for the sonically weary. Together: architects of flexible structures to house the enormity of their collective imagination.

Laswell fades into frame riding a harmonic for the ages, organic and initiatory. His is the vertical signature. Graves, meanwhile, drops to the floor and rolls around in his drums, for all the horizontal motivator. These are the stirrings beneath the floorboards of your childhood, the magic of beings you always knew were there but were sworn against discovering by parents who didn’t know any better. Now they have emerged, ready to perform.

The actions of this duo are kinetic and headstrong. Like muscles of the throat, they twitch in anticipation of speech. Only words never materialize. Graves is, nevertheless, quite vocal at peaks of expression. His hi-hat is the measure of a defibrillating heart, around which sticks converge like bones. The mounting corporeality of his playing underscores the circularity of this meeting. Laswell rides the wave, respectfully and patiently, before chorusing his approval through improvisation.

The bassist’s densities match those of Graves step for step before cutting out to leave the drummer running wildly across the savannah, of which every plant is an instrument waiting for contact of feet and hands. Laswell rejoins sagaciously, exploring the flanged interior of a fallen vessel, whose engine must be resuscitated by clean attention. He attends to broken wires and gears, giving life by electric injection.

Short blasts of data, each made knowable by the gift of vibration, project themselves across the inner ear. Motivations fall victim to their own causes. Despite having been designed for harm, the musicians are here to put an end to that cycle with their heavy light. The passion of experience wins.

(For more information, visit M.O.D. Technologies here.)

Praxis: In Times of Horror

In Times of Horror

Following in the footsteps of Sound Virus, Praxis returns for a single act of twisted faith. Featuring bassist and depth-bringer Bill Laswell, guitar alien Buckethead, and underground dot-connector John Zorn, this blast of hell heat overlays vocals from hip-hop artist extraordinaire and hero of the abyss, RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ (1960-2010).

Less than two minutes in time, but infinite in effect, “In Times of Horror” takes a drill to the tooth of a deity in agony. Its spiraling guitar, newly struck lyrics, and whirring core-grist bring a more guttural treatment to this archival classic. It is a morsel of rock turned into steel, then hammered into a spaceship of moon-destroying virtue. The abuse is at once robotic and as organic as dusk. It turns on an axis like a stick making fire on a bed of dry grass, inhaling smoke until it passes out.

The shop of time reopens for no one once the sign says CLOSED.

(For a sample and ordering information, click here.)