Subsonic 1: Fred Frith/Marc Ribot – Sounds Of A Distant Episode

In previous posts I’ve talked about Sub Rosa’s Subsonic series, and now it’s time to start looking at the individual records in more depth.

The first in the series brings together the talents of Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. Somewhat disappointingly, they don’t join forces. Like most of the records in this series the two guitarists turn out songs that don’t involve each other.

Purists will hate my classification, but this album is easily the most ‘free jazz’ of the series.

It’s certainly not a brilliant indicator of what the rest of the series  has in store, it does however get it off to a very good start.

Marc Ribot kicks off proceedings with what is predominantly a band recording. This is somewhat odd for the series as most of the material that came from it is based on unaccompanied guitar. Sure, Bill Laswell and Nic Bullen both employ a drum machine on Subsonic 2, but Ribot’s contribution is really the only one where you’ll hear a proper band playing (a band called ‘Shrek’ at that). They accompany Ribot on four of the five tracks here. Including him there are two guitarists, two drummers and a bassist. That said, at many points on these tracks it’s not clear to me what instrument, or player,  is making which sound. This is no bad thing and frankly is quite common with this sort of audio recording of improvisation.

Marc Ribot

Ribot’s part of the album is split into sections. Tracks 1-3 are the ‘Lobster Claw Symphonette’. The three different sections complement each other well.

Part one is all sweeps and swashes of treated guitar and atonal sounds. It sort of lulls you into a false sense of security before part 2 comes in like a massive Dada police chase with the instruments managing to mimic sirens and bells. This is an altogether more challenging listen that demands attention.  During the last 60 seconds the trail goes cold before part 3 explodes like a motorway pileup. Although not perhaps as frantic as something like 1969’s Nipples by Peter Brotzmann Sextet, the feel (to these untrained ears) is similar, all muted blast beats and  shred. It’s a colourful and energetic eight minutes.

Next up we get a bit of Ribot accompanying himself live on guitar and ‘EB horn’. The coordination is wonderful, and the guitar with it’s slight envelope at the beginning of each phrase creates a pleasantly seasick noise.

The last track from Ribot ‘The Rise and Fall of…’ brings back Shrek. This track is probably the most ‘jazz’. The pushed hi-hat creates a flow that would be more familiar to the uninitiated. It still goes ape-shit in the middle, but retains a curiously endearing path before subtly wandering away.

It leads nicely into the first of Fred Frith‘s two tracks.

Frith plays totally unaccompanied and it’s a very different experience. He put in two completely opposing tracks. The first, titled Solo Acoustic Guitar, instantly reminds me of Derek Bailey’s 1975 record ‘Improvisation’ but there’s more melody and frivolity. The guitar is dry and naked. When plucked hard the strings sound like jabs and scrapes. Frith throws in knocks on the acoustic’s body that make you jump. It’s a rarity in this series and a pleasant breath of fresh air before the 19  minute closer; Second Nature.

Fred Frith

Second Nature is  a solo track but it sounds like a whole room of musicians. I’m assuming it’s several tracks layered one at a time (if I’m wrong then it’s even more impressive). It brings together a number of different treatments of the guitar. I’ve seen videos of Frith’s guitar treatments and he doesn’t hold back. Straps, drumsticks, bows and a myriad of different techniques. In fact, there’s an excellent video here where Frith describes some of the right-hand techniques he uses.

During Second Nature, he manages to create a whole arrangement of sounds that bring to mind drum kits, double bass and other more obscure percussion.

As a fledgeling improviser myself, it almost makes me never want to bother picking up the guitar again such is the broad depth on display.

Frith was in London last week at Cafe OTO, unfortunately I couldn’t make the show. The video below does a great job of taunting me with what I missed.

Overall, Sounds Of A Distant Episode is a very fitting start to the Subsonic series. Although it lacks the sheer volume and brute force of later recordings it is a powerfully eclectic collection of tracks.

It also kicks off the artwork theme that would continue throughout the series. The coloured plastic case and sparse layout that opens up to crazy patchwork text fits the music incredibly well and in truth is probably a better indicator of the fact that this is a series of six records than the music contained on each disc.

Next in the series is Bill Laswell and N.J. Bullen’s ‘Subsonic 2: Bass Terror’.

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