Friday, March 27, 2009

Rediscover: Angus MacLise: Brain Damage in Oklahoma City

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Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

As shadowy musical figures go, it's hard to top Angus MacLise. The first drummer in the Velvet Underground's earliest incarnation, the story goes he quit after learning that the band might get paid for a gig in 1965, viewing this as an act of selling out (one wonders how he'd react to the his own catalog finally being issued on CD in 1999 and 2000). Though the story might be apocryphal - over the years the band's members have mentioned that MacLise seemed to operate on his own time in his own world and have also implied that his days with the band were numbered as a result - it has contributed to the legendary depiction of the drummer that still persists among music history's most dedicated fringes. Though MacLise would later briefly play with the band in 1966 and also try to rejoin the group - the always laid back and never domineering Lou Reed refused this request - his time as a member of the Velvets was short.

In many ways MacLise's biography reads like the ultimate example of the wandering artistic spirit and speaks to the joys of a rootless, nomadic existence that still define the popular depiction of the 1960s counterculture. Indeed, MacLise managed to cram more into his 41 years of life than most people do with more time, alternately being described as a composer, percussionist, poet, mystic, shaman and calligrapher. He was well read, studying everything from Haitian drumming to Middle East percussion. He played with La Monte Young's now-celebrated Theater of Eternal Music, a collective that created avant garde music so unlistenable that it was, of course, highly influential; future artists would later temper this approach into something a bit more palatable. In his post-Velvets career he traveled extensively, before settling in Nepal. He'd eventually die in 1979 of tuberculosis.


But does MacLise's recorded output equal the stuff of legend that his life has become? Certainly his work, most of which went unreleased until 20 years after his death, has never had broad appeal and probably never will. To many people, it likely sounds like the type of racket that would be most effective in extricating a third-world dictator from an underground bunker. It's also not hard to imagine albums like The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, Brain Damage in Oklahoma City and The Cloud Doctrine forming the soundtrack to a mentally deranged person's existence. Though MacLise's music is usually lumped into that big swirling mass known as psychedelia, it exists within that genre uneasily and only for lack of a better term. It's either the product of pure genius or a melody-challenged psychopath, with MacLise's songs incorporating chants, droning, electronic fuzz, tribal percussion, various stomps and yelps, and other mind-bending and ear-shredding traits. Even for fans of such music, it's not easy or particularly enjoyable listening; it's usually lo-fi and contains few hints of a reference point that makes even the most inaccessible music somewhat approachable. Spend a day with MacLise's albums and you'll likely feel like your brains have been mixed in a blender.

Brain Damage in Oklahoma City is perhaps MacLise's most representative release. Even so, for listeners not wired a certain way, the album borders on being nothing more than a mess of noise and nonsense, wandering and meandering with no real purpose except to try the listener's patience and mental health. And though even fans - excluding those whose brains were fried decades ago chasing the 1960s dream - would likely admit that it's not something that can be listened to often or as background music, it is worth hearing occasionally. Consisting of recordings the percussionist made between 1967-1970, it's also MacLise's most musically consistent and coherent effort, with its eight pieces (and 70 minute running time) taking the musician's drumming as its centerpiece. The album is bookended by two songs that feature MacLise playing cembalum, with opening song "Another Druid's Nest" also including chants and random thumps that recall Indian music. This chanting repeats on the manic "Haight Riot Mime," with MacLise this time pounding on bongos before the song abruptly cuts off, "Epiphany" augments hand drums with a hypnotic organ pattern, and the aptly titled "Drum Solo" consists of MacLise beating on barrel conga and bongos, again giving the song a primitive flavor.

The album's key tracks are also its most difficult. Clocking in at nearly 45 minutes, the two tracks that comprise "Dreamweapon Benefit for the Oklahoma City Police" are live ensemble works from 1968 that rely on improvisation in its most extreme form; no sane person would attempt to map out the songs' structures, shifts, or changes. Taken together they serve as a nice primer of MacLise's style or particular brand of torture - take your pick - as well as contain major avant garde elements that that still influence musicians today. The song ebbs and flows uneasily, with moments of calm used to steadily build tension, before it explodes and recedes again. Its most memorable parts are primarily chaotic, noisy, and aggressive; a sort of demented chanting rises and falls against MacLise's barrel conga and wife Hetty MacLise's tampura, while Tony Conrad's limp string and Henry Flynt's flute become increasingly abrasive as the song progresses. What it brings to mind is a traffic jam from hell or a set of schizophrenics turned loose in a musical instruments store. While the song sometimes tends to overindulge in its own experimentalism - one could argue that the song is too experimental for its own good, and that you've got to be stoned out of your gourd to really get it - it's a nice summation of MacLise's musical vision.

Setting aside the nagging fact that Brain Damage in Oklahoma City will always remain a cult favorite. Regardless of those cynics who argue that MacLise's music would have been relegated to the dustbin of history if it weren't for his involvement with the Velvets, it still remains one of the clearest examples of late 1960s experimental music. Though its content may not equal the long shadow cast by MacLise's legend, it offers a good opportunity to see MacLise as a musician and artist, not as a mystical figure best known for his extremely brief time with the Velvet Underground.

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