While Lennon is his mother’s great facilitator in Plastic Ono Band, and channels his Beatles heritage through lightly psychedelic songs he records with his partner as The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, Saunier occasionally collaborates with David Byrne. All as you might expect.
Even Saunier’s adventurous onstage mixology with Deerhoof—whether that’s making indie Afro-noise with Congotronics, or jamming on Canned Heat and King Crimson with Flaming Lips—has been as much funtime as funambulism. So this dive into improvised jazz/fusion is a bold one, for both partners.
There are no songs with lyrics on Mystical Weapons (Chimera Records), which is billed as “an improvisational project”. There’s an irrepressible spirit of spontaneity and buoyant enjoyment at play, sure enough, yet each album track has its distinctive form, suggesting that care has been taken to distill any procedural anarchy into something with associative resonance; something (dare I say it) marketable. And that’s all to the good.
Here’s the inside story of Mystical Weapons’ genesis:
“A couple of years ago the Plastic Ono Band played a show in San Francisco with Deerhoof. The GOASTT was doing a club date the next day, so Sean asked Greg if he’d like to form an ad hoc duo to open the show. Shortly thereafter the duo began a series of occasional live shows in which they relied almost entirely on the idea of instant composition..improvising along to the surreal animated films of Martha Colburn” (for which, see on marthacolburn.com; well worth a look).
In the studio, the Mystical duo evidently took stock, marshalling influences and inspirations into 13 concise pieces of diverse revelation collectively running to just 36:21; the whole constitutes a suite of sorts, making most sense if experienced as a whole, in one sitting.
“Impossible Shapes” roots a soaring electric guitar break in a bed of synthesisers that bridges to “Silk Screen Eyes”, little more than a fragmentary interlude of gong sounds treated to impart an aquatic Harry Partch vibe. Likewise, the jauntily weird, childlike synth and percussion jumble of “Mechanical Mammoth” carries over to “Whispers The Blue Tongue”, one of the album’s longer pieces at 6:37. The latter tastes of Miles Davis’ electric period, electric keys and fx’d wah guitar disturbing an initially sultry, bass-driven sub-funk jambalaya. Then there’s a change of tack.
“Dirty” is just piano chords and apparently randomised plinking, accompanied by loose kit drumming and brushwork. The effect is rather woozy, but “Goddess Curlers” is a rude wakeup; 90’s downtown NYC with a dash of Hawkwind. And so it goes. “Colony Collapse Disorder” is one of the album’s most rounded tracks, a propulsive nu-prog number shading into spacey ambience, which wouldn’t sound out of place on any number of contemporary Norwegian fusion albums.
Another unavoidable referent here is Bill Laswell’s syncretic blend of P-Funk, post-Mahavishnu jazz and exotica. But where Laswell’s praxis (cf. Praxis) has a schizoid coldness and intensity, Mystical Weapons’ sound is more diffuse, has a warmer essence, as on “Distant City”, another one-minute interlude; a terrific blend of immersive organ tones, reverb’d guitar and dust-devil drums.
“Gross Domestic Happiness” is epic in context, first evoking a Soft Machine/Om collaboration, then taking off on a chaotic, psych guitar-fuelled mission to the dark side of the moon, where we find Bernie Worrell jamming on Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral”.
That just leaves “Consortium Musicum”, which could be mistaken for an outtake from John Zorn’s Ennio Morricone tribute album The Big Gundown.
John Zorn’s influence is everywhere these days, and alongside Laswell he certainly set the precedent for Mystical Weapons’ black hole syncretism. But Lennon and Saunier evidently have their own methodology, yielding unique complexities and forging them into their own organic soundscapes.
If, like me, you can accept cinematic music without songs or song structures, then this album is definitely worth your time. Others might enjoy the group more in conjunction with the imagery of Martha Colburn, who I believe is formally considered the group’s third member. Perhaps a DVD album, next time, would be a good idea.