Heavy Metal JANUARY 1983 - by Lou Stathis


Okay, lets get serious.

Man does not live by rock - or at least Lou doesn't. There are just some itches flitting across this scratch-scarred body that require something more than rock's beating-pulse rhythm and memory-magnet melodies to make them go away. Grey Sunday afternoons in October, for instance, demand something of delicate construction and unwavering, gentle insistence - baroque harpsichord music, ideally. While an interminable, moonless night at the typewriter calls for something of seductive obnoxiousness - like Cabaret Voltaire's collaged hypnotronics. Choosing a record to play can be like choosing a suitable set of clothes in the morning; it first reflects your mood ("Today I'm gonna wear all black"), and then assumes a role in the changing matrix of your feelings throughout the day ("I've been listening to Iron Maiden all morning, let's go out and find a virgin to sacrifice!"). And if your life is at all varied, you'll need more than one style/colour/look to get you through the week.

Unfortunately, most of what is these days called "serious" or "classical" music (both terms suck) doesn't engage my feelings at all. Too often, it's a music obsessed with process, and only secondarily (it at all) interested in expressivity. Backwards, if you ask me, though perfectly understandable I suppose, to the over-educated, postmodern composer. Composer/musicians such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich began and refined what is the reductio ad absurdum of post-modern minimalism - basically characterised by endless repetition and a velocity of change matched only by the Earth's rotation.

Philip Glass is the only one of these guys I can still listen to with any pleasure, though as a friend pointed out after a recent club performance at NYC's Danceteria, his music seems like "all foreplay and no orgasm." I find an undeniably captivating power at its root. His most recent recording, Glassworks (Columbia) is - gasp! - quite romantic, really. It begins with an appealing, repeating piano figure that ultimately spirals into a surging, full-sweep ensemble revue, interspersed with a trailing, wind-gliding flute. Nice.

Steve Reich on the other leaves me cold. Watching his well-trained group perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave series reminded me of a surgical operation, or worse, a close-order drill team. It's so rigid, so disciplined, that it makes me nervous, and while the rhythmic repetition can be restful and contemplative, I find myself resisting the groove (like I'd refuse to sing along with a catchy commercial - it's too obvious). The whole evening's music was too pat, too cut-and-dried. Its only value lies in the way it forces a recalibration of perception mechanisms: when change is at a minimum, the slightest alteration of tone or texture assumes monumental proportions. Movement isn't noticed as such, but more like a clock's hands or a child's growth, it's noticeable only when you periodically avert your attention. Tehillim (ECM), the latest of his three releases on that jazz-oriented label, is also the least involving. Based on a Hebrew religious chant, it sounds dull, passionless and perfunctory, and not nearly as interesting as his 1980 Octet or 1978 Music For 18 Musicians.

Instead of reducing everything to ornamentation draped over a rhythmic spine, Brian Eno's genus of minimalism reduces all elements to a state of near-invisibility. On Land (Editions EG) is the fourth In his "Ambient" series, and true to its predecessors, it raises passivity and implication to precarious new heights of importance. The record asks you to assemble visual environments through extrapolation or triangulation of sonic coordinates. It works but just make sure you don' forget the thing is there and walk right through it.

Enough of this chrome-dome stuff - what I really want to recommend to you goes best with a cup of black coffee, an ashtray full of filterless cigarette butts and a serious case of existential downs. Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill were known primarily as sometime song-writing collaborators (and flaming commie-pinkos), but a trio of recent platters show them to be uncommonly exquisite social/personal documentarists. The Unknown Kurt Weill (Nonesuch) shows us composer Weill's tragic/romantic side (and you thought Bryan Ferry invented that pose, eh?) with lyrics provided by various collaborators (Cocteau, Hammerstein II, Brecht and others less known), carried by Teresa Stratas's magnificent soprano. Wie Lange Nach has got to be one of the most soul-tearing songs ever. There's Nothing Quite Like Money (Labor) is a marvellous collection of Brecht and composer Hans Eisler's rousingly bitter anti-capitalist/fascist songs, sung with a bit too much reserve by Sylvia Anders. Propaganda has never sounded this good. And lastly, there's David Bowie's Baal mini-LP (RCA), containing five songs from the British TV production of Brecht's first play. The translations sometimes stumble a bit, but the old boy seems to relish playing a randy old derelict.