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Avant guardians
Cul de Sac score, and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic get spiritual

Cul de Sac have been one of the most adventurous bands in Boston for all their 13 years, and at times (including the present) one of the most daring in America. The group were born out of a need on the part of guitarist Glenn Jones and sonic manipulator Robin Amos to sidestep the conventions of rock for their own psyclone of psychedelia, ambiance, modernist classical composition, musique concrète, European experimentalism, and traditional American roots fundamentals. Not in an effete way, but with an approach that demands energy and a visceral attack along with improvisational skills. Often many of these elements are invisible, or at least inaudible, in Cul de Sacís music, but theyíre always there ó tiny voices nagging within the band membersí heads, insisting that things go their way or that they not be forgotten.

What with all this internal discussion, external discussion can get complex too. So much so that the release of Cul de Sacís previous album, Death of the Sun (Strange Attractors), was delayed by four years while the quintet debated what would make the final cut. "We have a rule that everyone in the band has to be happy with everything that makes it onto the records," explains Jones. "Otherwise we have to revisit the tracks and maybe return to the studio for overdubbing or find some other solution."

Cul de Sacís new The Stranglerís Wife (Strange Attractors), on the other hand, practically spilled from their brains and hands into record shops. Thatís the charm of deadlines. The 18 pieces on the disc, which is easily one of the finest recordings released by a Boston band this year, make up the soundtrack for horror-flick meister Roger Cormanís latest production, also called The Stranglerís Wife, which was shot in Boston. The album flashes between beauty and terror. Some pieces sound like chunks of twisted metal dropped from the heavens. Others ó often when Jones plays his precise acoustic guitar over the buzz of Amosís electronics or duets with Jonathan LaMasterís violin, or when the band glide through airy ambient improvisations ó just sound heavenly. And then there are slices of naked menace, like "First Victim," which uses Jonathan Proudmanís raging juggernaut drums and Jonesís hairy fuzz guitar to uneasy effect.

The disc was cut over two weeks, sometimes with the full ensemble improvising as they watched the movie. "The nature of the film suggested that the whole band wouldnít be playing for every scene," Jones says. "There were key scenes where we wanted the whole band, but we started to think in terms of solos, duets, trios. There was one scene where there was a particularly horrific murder, and Robin shouted, ĎOh, I want to do that!í "

The Stranglerís Wife is part of a creative hot streak for Cul de Sac that began with their artful psychedelic rock masterpiece Crashes to Light, Minutes to the Fall (Thirsty Ear) in 1999. Since then, theyíve made several long tours, including more than 40 dates in the US and abroad backing former Can vocalist Damo Suzuki. "Those were great for us," Jones says, "because Damoís æsthetic is you donít rehearse, you donít play covers, and you donít improvise ó by which I think he means no flashy solos. His idea is spontaneous composition, so he wants songs to have verse-chorus structural integrity the first time you play them. And many of the shows were two or three hours long." Tapes from those performances will yield a Suzuki/Cul de Sac album in the future, and the band are also assembling a best-of collection for the spring that should go some way to establish their legacy in, for want of a better tag, the rocking branch of the American avant-garde.

Or at least in Boston. Itís only in recent years that the group have been getting some long-deserved respect in their home port, which doesnít have much of a reputation for nurturing adventurous rock or jazz. And that makes Jones happy. "I welcome any recognition warmly. Itís been a little strange. Weíve gone to Europe, and people there will have every one of our albums, which has been astonishing, because here in Boston itís felt like people hardly knew who we were."

Perhaps those days are over for Cul de Sac. But if not, donít expect the group ó whose line-up is completed by turntable and sampling artist Jake Trussell ó to be dissuaded from their path. "The band has become more democratic in the sense that the current line-up is confident in their own abilities as composers and arrangers," says Jones. "That makes for an interesting dynamic, because everybody is certain of their own strong opinions, so we have a lot of discussion and debate. Maybe thereís too much intellectualization. I donít know. As long as it is never evident on the stage, thatís whatís important. About the only thing we really all agree on is Cul de Sac."

REEVES GABRELS, the veteran Boston guitarist who spent 13 years working with David Bowie, once joked that "melody is the last frontier." He was referring to the sounds made by players in contemporary rock and the avant-garde, categories he ó like Cul de Sac ó straddles conformably. Birdsongs of the Mesozoic also claim real estate in these realms. Founding member Eric Lindgren explains that when he joined his first band, more than 25 years ago, "my goal was to mix the music of the early Stooges with Anton Webern, and ever since then my goal has remained to mix those two worlds."

The sprawlingly creative four-piece ensembleís latest project, which comes on the heels of their new The Iridium Controversy (Cuneiform), is right in line with Lindgrenís ambition to blend the raw and the intellectually cooked: it finds Birdsongs and the Atlanta-based vocalist Oral Moses teaming up to explore new arrangements of African-American spirituals. Lindgren received a grant from the American Composers Forum for the project, and the result is versions of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," "Oh Freedom," "Listen to the Angels Shouting," "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," and other nuggets as theyíve not been heard before. At times, Mosesís voice is sampled and pitched-changed and chopped into percussive Morse code by the bandís resident computer jockey and guitarist, Michael Bierylo. And though the quartet have peeled back their trademark sonic density a bit, with fewer of the saxophone and guitar outbursts that provide some of The Iridium Controversyís highs, theyíre still defined by ferocious pulses, layers of harmony, and other Birdsongs signatures. Mosesís performances maintain the integrity of these songsí classic melodies, providing a backbone for the music and a touchstone for listeners. Next Sunday, the band and Moses will unite for the live debut of their shared songbook in the Forsyth Chapel at the entrance to Forest Hills Cemetery.

"We had been toying with the idea of doing something with vocals, and this is a very natural way to meddle in those waters," explains Bierylo. Lindgren has known Moses since the mid í80s; a baritone experienced in opera and the avant-garde as well as African-American traditional music, he seemed the groupís perfect foil. "Our new CD and the spirituals project with Oral are radically different bodies of work," explains reed player Ken Field, who along with keyboardist Rick Scott completes the band. "In Birdsongsí music, all of us tend to play equal roles, and thereís more emphasis on texture, harmony, and rhythm than melody. But with Oral, weíre marrying that approach to very melodic music. And Oralís melodies are in the bass range, so working with a melody in that range is entirely new to me."

"Iím still not sure why it works," says Lindgren. "To me, itís these almost academic compositions with his floating melodies. Itís very soulful, and yet if you strip away Oralís melodies, youíre listening to 20th-century classical composition."

The Iridium Controversy also fits comfortably into that category. Itís an album of precision, whether in the blocky chords of piano that open the first and last numbers or the layers of keyboards, saxophone, guitar, and computer sonics that turn the title suite and "Centrifuge" into an aural playground full of tilt-a-whirl climaxes and lush textures. Back on September 6, on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Birdsongs debuted the material to a full house ó evidence that the so-called serious-music community is beginning to embrace their work.

One community that is certainly taking Birdsongs seriously is the progressive-rock crowd. The group made their first trip to NearFest, an annual gathering of the prog tribes in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2001, and they were warmly embraced. One new fan was the distinguished fantasy artist Roger Dean, who did many otherworldly landscapes for Yes album covers. Dean agreed to do a painting for Birdsongsí latest, so The Iridium Controversy is adorned with a pair of his prehistoric birds perched on a tree high above a primæval valley. The band played his New York City gallery opening this spring, "and we hadnít seen the painting yet," says Field. "When we walked in, there it was on the wall, titled Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, with a $150,000 price tag." He adds, joking, "Weíre taking up a collection, because weíd like to own it."

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and Oral Moses play next Sunday, November 16, at Forsyth Chapel in Forest Hills Cemetery, 95 Forest Hills Avenue in Jamaica Plain; call (617) 524-3354.

Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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