Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Secret Chiefs 3 and The Path to "Perichoresis"

As the designated driver on our regularly scheduled hill country wine tours, I retain some modicum of control over the car stereo. Usually, I bring a carefully curated collection of albums, but on one particular trip last Spring, due to lack of planning, I hurriedly grabbed a handful of CDs from my dashboard. After Brendan Benson and Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger had worn out their welcome, I surreptitiously slipped the Secret Chiefs 3 into the CD player. I knew I might be taking a chance on this one, but surprisingly, Book M went over pretty well. The more conservative listeners in the car were in good enough spirits to allow my indulgence without too much criticism. My buddy The Best Man, however, being a fan of the infamously eclectic Mr. Bungle, ended up really liking Book M. A few months later, he let me know that the Secret Chiefs 3 were about to play in Austin. Without hesitation, we packed it up on a school night to go check them out.

We got there early enough to see both opening bands, the first of which was Atomic Ape. Their high-density, exotic style clearly owed quite a bit to the Secret Chiefs 3. I put their album on my list as a compositional reference for Ethnos. The second band was Il Sogno del Marinaio, led by Mike Watt. I saw another Mike Watt project several years ago when he brought LITE on tour throughout the US and they played a free show at SXSW. Judging by the enthusiasm of the audience at both shows, a lot of people seem to like Mike Watt, but, like the last time I saw him, I wasn’t entirely convinced.

As these bands were playing, I discovered that this somewhat low-profile tour was organized in part to support Perichoresis, a new Secret Chiefs 3 recording. I decided that this was to be the take-away item for the show. Towards the end of Il Sogno del Marinaio’s set, we made our way back to find that Trey Spruance himself was manning the swag booth. We were, admittedly, a little starstruck. He greeted us kindly with his eyes, but was unable to exit a conversation he was having with an inebriated fan. The club was very, very loud, so I gestured that I wanted to pick up the new recording. Although Spruance’s body language indicated his desire to do otherwise, he continued to pay patient attention to this enthusiastic fan as he attended to us.

Spruance pointed to a note card by the new CD, which, according to the brief description, was a “folk album” that boasted many “ratio-based time signatures.” It was prominently credited to Ishraqiyun, a sub-group of the Secret Chiefs 3 collective that specializes in ethnic influence.

Undoubtedly, Perichoresis features the same cross-cultural instrumentation and exotic modality that I have come to associate with the Secret Chiefs 3. In some ways, however, pushes the envelope even further, especially in terms of rhythm. It is often clear that there is an intuitive pattern that undergirds its sometimes repetitive structures. The rhythmic complexity of these patterns, however, continually confounds predictability and, by extension, any perception of redundancy.

As a result, Perichoresis is a jarring tapestry of angular, lurching riffs that are simultaneously meditative and disorienting. For this reason, I would be a little more hesitant to slip this one in the player with a van full of people unfamiliar with what the Secret Chiefs 3 are up to. Despite this somewhat challenging exterior, however, there are no wrong notes. There are no missed rhythms. Everything that happens is intended as it sounds, both on Perichoresis and in the Secret Chiefs 3 live show.

Spruance soon disappeared from the merchandise booth only to reappear on stage in the requisite cloak. Having broken his ankle earlier on tour, he performed from a chair, but this did relatively little to dampen the performance. The show was completely mesmerizing. It was, in fact, a musical assault, not just in terms of volume or intensity, but also in terms of concept. Both the Best Man and I were, and still are, at a loss for words when it comes to describing exactly what happened on stage that evening, but we both agree it was a phenomenal experience.

Standing on its Own: Yes' "Time and a Word"

I have owned Time and a Word for quite awhile, but until recently, I have never given it more than a cursory listen. Not that I have harbored a disdain for it, but I have always secretly felt that The Yes Album was the band's first real musical statement.  I have sometimes unjustly dismissed its two predecessors. Considering I have recently defended the authenticity of controversial albums like 90125 and Heaven and Earth, however, this truly original lineup deserves the same consideration as any other. Since the release of this latter album, I have been investigating the margins of Yes’ back catalog, and over the last month, I have finally spent some quality time with Time and a Word. As a seasoned Yes fan of many years, this album is of real interest.

Heaven and Earth received criticism from its conservative fanbase because of its relatively succinct songwriting. Time and a Word, however, shows how close to the foundation of the Yes sound songwriting  actually lies. The large-scale epics that Yes came to be known for are nowhere to be found, but its tuneful psychedelia is the bedrock upon which their more expansive work would eventually be built. I would, however, stop short of calling Yes’ early compositional approach succinct. In form, they predict the approach that Rush would return to in the 80s, embedding extended instrumental excursions within strophic structures.

I would also stop very, very short of declaring that Heaven and Earth is the equal of Time and a Word. Time and a Word is driven by a countercultural fire that, I think, was lost as the band’s musical ambitions began to grow. The egos that pushed Yes into the successes that followed seem to be less pronounced, and the band’s members, although clearly on a path of musical excellence, seemed to be infused with youthful exuberance.

With one exception: Time and a Word was a turning point for original guitarist, the late Peter Banks. Quite famously, he was opposed to working with an orchestra, but clearly, the orchestra plays a significant role on Time and a Word. As a result, Banks’ playing is adequate, but it might be unfair to judge him by his playing on the album by itself.  He may have been pulling away from the group as the orchestra began to play a larger role. By the time most of the promotional materials for Time and a Word were released, Banks’ association with the band had ended. Steve Howe, who would come to be a defining part of the Yes sound, is shown miming his parts in virtually all video footage of the band.

Without a really strong guitar presence, however, the contributions of other members are much more noticeable. For example, although I have always been a fan of Bill Bruford, as Yes evolved into a full-blown progressive act, I think that they needed Alan White's hard-hitting approach to fill the larger arenas. Time and a Word, however, feels a bit more intimate than their later work, and Bruford’s calm, assertive energy is well-suited for this up-close interaction. His distinctively creative style was still in the formative stages of what it would eventually become, but it ripples and drives in a way that only the most relaxed technique can execute.

It is also a shame that, despite having listened to Tony Kaye since I first got into Yes in the early 80s, I am just now beginning to appreciate him.  Granted, the above video shows him to be a pretty lame bass player (comedically trading places with Chris Squire on what looked like a pretty miserable video shoot).  On the heels of getting into Circa: earlier this year, however, Time and a Word further reveals his unique keyboard virtuosity and his important role in the Yes canon. He has had the misfortune of being caught in the shadow of both his successor Rick Wakeman and his future bandmate Trevor Rabin, but on Time and a Word he is a driving melodic force that would continue to define the Yes sound even beyond his own participation in the group.

Thoughout their various incarnations, Yes has always found success in the synergy that exists between any given set of participants. The original lineup was no different. It had its own distinctive energy that was absolutely necessary for the group’s long-term success. Although Time and a Word would be the last time that the band would work with an orchestra for decades, it did hint at the broader palette that Yes was envisioning. On its own, though, it’s an incredibly successful work that stands on its own in terms of songwriting and technical virtuosity.