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.
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.