Secret Chiefs 3: Empty Bottle, 9/17/11

Mon Sep 19 2011

Grudgingly, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that for all time, most folks just aren’t going to get obsessed with Secret Chiefs 3. In my impossible quest to be objective, the best I can come up with is that in terms of unique style crossed with instrumental versatility and prowess, they can’t be topped. I used to think Mr. Bungle, but in the long run Bungle doesn’t quite stack up consistently. As much as I love Mike Patton, his former Bungle cohort Trey Spruance has evolved waaaaaay more as an artist since the breakup, and is now making music much better than he ever did with Bungle.

An important aspect to acknowledge: the fact that fewer than half the songs SC3 played have ever been released on an album is part of the allure. On one hand, it’s a geek-paradise, but on the other hand, you can only hear these tunes live, and as it happens, the ones that they only play live are the best ones. I could loan you all my SC3 CDs and you could listen to them until you’re exhausted, but you still wouldn’t have a clue what a show is like. The album tracks are radically different live. Even the older unreleased songs are significantly rearranged from how they sounded last year. And the songs that are brand new on this tour were the highlights of the show.

Two advancements were particularly notable. One, as has been progressively the case for the past four years or so, everything was heavier than last tour. Those of us who mourned Trey’s virtual abandonment of metal get more excited with every Secret Chiefs tour, because he injects more every year, even into heretofore very un-metal tunes like “The 4” and “Ship of Fools, Stone of Exile”. The other thing is that Trey is getting heavily back into improv, and when he’s shredding, he’s like Page, Howe and Zappa all rolled into one pair of hands. Except when he’s on the electric saz, when he’s like nobody else ever. The whole band really stretched out, yet remained as tight as ever for the composed portions. Ches Smith has improved exponentially since 2007; at times it seemed his drum part had gone utterly wrong but it always turned out that my brain just wasn’t advanced enough to keep up. Violinist Timb Harris was the only occasional weak link; at times virtuosic, at times too reliant on mindless screeching (and passable on the trumpet when needed), he was a distraction a couple of times, but it’s no use pining for Eyvind Kang; Harris is a perfect fit in almost every respect.

There’s also something absurdly thrilling about getting to a point where you can follow along to rapidly-shifting time signatures you would never bother to try figuring out mathematically. It’s a process of barely hanging on, looking like an idiot, wondering if you’re actually letting go of a certain part of your consciousness and allowing your body to move independently of your brain. When these complex, vicious pieces of music become ingrained in you the way they obviously have in the musicians playing them, the soul becomes one with the intellect, and the songs are collections of puzzle pieces assembling themselves on their own. We’re not talking about prog by any stretch here—we’re talking musical formats and rhythms that are inconceivable to most Western artists. I’m not saying the difficulty level makes SC3 better than other bands; just offering one plausible idea for why more people aren’t on board. But for my money, there is no better band.

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