Secret Chiefs 3: The Doubtle Door, Chicago, 3-10-07

Sun Apr 22 2007

For many fans who crowded inside the grungy Double Door on a mild Saturday night, expectations were almost too high to get over ; Secret Chiefs 3 had visited Chicago just once before (six years prior), and the band had been stewing in its own mystique ever since. Mastermind Trey Spruance had announced since that time that SC3 was actually seven different bands, and the two albums released since 2000 showed the blanket collective becoming increasingly compartmentalized. The fear is that this spring tour could be the last of the eclectic conglomerate, and as infrequently as the group has toured at all, the world may never hear many of these songs played live again. A living legend among the faithful, Spruance joined his troupe onstage shortly before 11, all clad in black robes, and the ceremony began.

As the headliners (according to the ticket, at least) opened the show with “Medieval,” an as-yet unreleased song, it took many fans off guard (thinking would be the first band to play), but it was unmistakable Ishraqiyun material, albeit with a much fuller drum arrangement, and a vigorous Spruance guitar crescendo as the song finished. “The 15” experienced a similar transformation, drummer Peijman Kouretchian channeling original drummer Danny Heifitz in somewhat of a departure from the strict Middle-Eastern sound of Ishraqiyun, Spruance adding some muscle to his guitar part. Later in the show, the band returned to Ishraqiyun with “The 3,” “Bereshith,” and another new song, all of which shone with this new light. They weren’t exactly more accessible, just augmented, clarified, as if Spruance wanted to drive home some cryptic secrets into our Midwestern brains. It was working; the audience was rapt.

UR first appeared in the form of “Personnae: Halloween,” a surf send-up of the horror movie theme that Spruance injected with a fitting metallic edge—this Holy Vehm influence had seemingly crept into many aspects of the whole, and its presence cast a formidable shadow over the proceedings. Even “Dolorous Stroke,” already UR’s most sinister tune, felt even creepier and more vindictive tonight. There was occasional respite: in the wake of “Halloween” came the cinematic sweep of “The End Times,” a break in the storm, a calming breeze between the dunes. This Traditionalists piece came like a mollified echo of the primordial “Assassins Blade,” which was played fast and deadly tonight, the staccato attack of Anonymous 13 (viola) and Timb Harris (violin) thrusting like a tense tango between murderers. Following this procession, “Castle Of Sand” felt positively lighthearted, and it gave way to the exotic exploration of “Ship Of Fools (Stone of Exile),” a delirious stumble through a spirit-infested wasteland. The heat from the strings was making us all lightheaded, but as the song trailed off, relief was not in the offing.

The frantic onslaught of “Brazen Serpent” began like an alarm that won’t be snoozed, waking you into dream after dream, sending you deeper into an inescapable fantasy with each thematic development. It didnt take long for everyone to realize that this was the apex of everything we’d heard tonight, the culmination of what Secret Chiefs 3 had been plotting in secret for the past several years. It built to a chaotic roar, dipped back down and opened its maw wide, slithered around, taunting us, then coiled and struck. The intensity built up in the final movement was unmatched by anything I’d heard before. The rhythm could’ve fallen apart at any time, but it was somehow fluid as it lurched, propulsive in its stuttering. There are no genre signifiers to wrap your head around; it was impossibly melodic in the midst of what felt like total chaos, astonishingly complex while yielding a rush of pure brute force. The collective gasp of the audience when it was finished was overwhelming. We needed an encore, if only to justify our screaming. It was “Renunciation,” as close to quintessential, hybrid SC3 as there is, and it was a grand finish, like a Bollywood score with a twist of metal; it was a pleasure just to watch Spruance’s fingers on this one. It was nice to be able to breathe again. I savored these last few moments in the otherworld, grateful in the knowledge that while some memories fade, others are branded in the brain, and this one is an unmissable scar.

Ishraqiyun, Forms, Traditionalists, UR, The Electromagnetic Azoth, The Holy Vehm, and a supposed seventh, as-yet-unrevealed entity

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