September 9, 2006
MassART | Boston, MA

When a piece of music begins with sheer, obliterating noise it sends me into a panic. I’m constantly looking for narratives in music —patterns and emotional cues— and noise initially puts up a wall of pure hunger, of force, that is not only daunting but difficult to reconcile with. You want to ask of any piece of music: Who are you? What are you doing here? What are you trying to say? but the pummeling wall of sound hurls you backwards, scrambling your logical brain and frying your synapses before you can even begin the inquiry.

There’s catharsis to be found in something so pure. Saturday night, Heathen Shame —consisting of Kate & Wayne of Major Stars/Magic Hour on guitars and Greg Kelley on amped trumpet— began their set with feedback so loud I started to wonder if I could jam multiple sets of ear plugs into my ears. But once the noise settled down to more manageable levels, I was free to engage their performance on its own terms. On the one hand, the group created a palpable sense of tension, echoing Kate and Wayne’s intricate pas de deux of aggression between the guitars with exaggerated, orchestrated movements. As the players stalked intently around the room with mechanized precision, their bodies silhouetted in near-darkness, the forbidding (and foreboding) noise gradually gave way to patterns. Patterns and ritual. The guitars were no less frenzied, but the chaotic bacchanalia of notes began to sound like Indian ragas. Something delicate was there, buried but audible, like the last shred of Hope in Pandora’s box. The piece built and built to a strangely cathartic finale. It was emotional and exhausting.

I’d heard that Rhys Chatham’s new band Essentialist was inspired by the glacial, drone-laden metal of groups like Sunn0))) and Earth. The performance certainly started out that way —with a beautifully orchestrated slow burn, tension ramping up with carefully calibrated precision. Then, BAM! The drummer let loose all that coiled energy and suddenly we had a very different beast on our hands. Not a slow, lumbering beast of burden but something lightning-fast and sleek. It also reminded me of nothing so much as speedy metal in the Pantera vein, albeit played with a sociological sense of detachment. (What the Brits would call “po-faced,” I believe.) Riff-o-rama heaviosity without all the attendant clichés like adolescent posturing, macho bluster, and ridiculous genuflecting at the Church of Satan transmutes into something else entirely —something pure and almost new. (I say almostbecause man, dusting off Monsters of Rock dinosaur metal is a tall fucking order.) If you think about how Rhys has previously performed his alchemical straw-into-gold with punk rawk (applying avant-garde techniques to rock n’roll structures) this new outfit makes sense. Appropriately enough, Saturday night’s show led, full circle, to a blistering performance of 1977’s “Guitar Trio,” a work that never fails to strip the paint off the walls and remind you how vital the sound of three guitars can be.


Essentialist will be recording later this month, with an eye towards releasing an album in mid-2007. Chatham’s “A Crimson Grail” will be released in December 2006 on Table of the Elements. Visit Rhys Chatham’s site or that of his record label Table of the Elements for more info. “Guitar Trio,” which is taken from the recently reissued compilation of early works entitled Die Donnergötter (The Thundergods) is available online. | Buy releases from Heathen Shame, Table of the Elements, et al.:Twisted Village. | More info about other NonEvents here.

MP3Rhys Chatham, “Guitar Trio (1982 Version)”