In the annals of experimental music, Sun Ra and Merzbow have both managed to transcend themselves—as artists and as acts—approaching a status where the mere mention of their name conjures a style and sound, an aesthetic. Additionally, they both boast ludicrously deep back catalogues of recordings. The fifty-CD Merzbox alone is impressive, but pales next to Merzbow’s approximately 283 studio albums (to date). Add that to the over 1,000 songs composed by Sun Ra, and Strange City has the potential to be an incredible fusion of two of the most prolific names in experimental music.
The final product falls very short of expectations.
I respect the fact that Cold Spring managed to get exclusive tracks licensed from the Sun Ra estate. When this album first got announced, the press release description described the Sun Ra recordings as being “remixed and treated” by Merzbow. This is true in a very literal sense, yes, but not quite what had been hoped for. The Sun Ra recordings feel less “remixed” than they do remastered—at best. Honestly, discerning the jazz underneath the noise is incredibly difficult during most of these recordings. Strange City is less “Merzbow remixes Sun Ra,” and more “Merzbow plays Sun Ra in the background while he practices.”
One of the aspects that tends to set capital ”J” Jazz apart from other genres is the subtle nuances of the performers; the manner by which a melody or harmony will travel through the ensemble, moving from one instrument to another, mutating along the way like a virus. This is less an argument for virtuosity than for intuition and interpretation. Jazz tends to present music in a much more emotional, transient sense than, say, classical or black metal. In other words, the point is not paramount technical proficiency. Considering that, the displeasure Strange City leaves in its wake is all the more frustrating. Noise is, by most accounts, unstructured, open to improvisation and interpretation, highly individualised. On paper, putting the two together seems like a complementary match; maybe the concept is sound, but in this case, the execution falls flat.
“Livid Sun Loop” opens with a segment of the Arkestra on loop, but by the time the loop has made one complete relay, Merzbow’s signature harsh noise has stepped to the forefront. At one point, glimmers of jazz bleed through—a horn here and there, maybe a snare roll or some percussion—but for the most part, the shattering walls of static and disjointed oscillators are too overpowering to get behind. Even more upsetting, “Livid Sun Loop” is the best of the bunch. The seventy-minute opus, “Granular Jazz,” sounds like straight Merzbow about 90% of the time. The blessing/curse is that the four segments are only available if you purchase both the CD and the LP versions.
Which, finally, is this a clause in a contract that comes with Merzbow: overly elaborately packaged cash-grabs? His recent collaboration with Boris, Gensho, lifted heavily from the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, and the 13 Japanese Birds box set is only about six years old now. These sort of consumer variants can be appealing, but when the recorded material feels so rushed and unimportant, why bother polishing the outside?
While Strange City could—and should—have been a blistering union between two of the biggest names in their respective fields, what got delivered seems like just another twenty-first century Merzbow release: loud, digital, frantic, and generally lacking in the nuanced musicianship that makes Sun Ra such a respected composer, performer, and historical figure. Next time the estate grants exclusive tracking rights, they should be sure to include an “article 50” nuclear option, just in case.
01) Livid Sun Loop
02) Granular Jazz Part 2
A1) Granular Jazz Part 1
B1) Granular Jazz Part 3
B2) Granular Jazz Part 4