RANGDA FALSE FLAG (DRAG CITY)
Ben Chasny is playing by different rules these days. The singer-guitarist has traded in the dark-tinged meditation of his best-known band, psych-folk outfit Six Organs of Admittance, for the ecstatic violence of his new trio, Rangda, where he's joined by freewheeling percussionist Chris Corsano and former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop. Rangda's music is largely improvised, free from the tyranny of notation and in many cases not even notatable—a quality that makes it less accessible than most of Chasny's other work. He's not first and foremost thinking about what his audience might get out of it, though—for him Rangda is about what he puts in.
"On a surface level it sounds like I'm myopic and/or self-concerned," Chasny says, "but I feel the pleasure and enjoyment is palpable [in this music]. Ultimately, this band is about my own enjoyment. And that enjoyment comes from interacting musically with those two as musicians. It's not a sum of the parts, because it's how those parts exist in relationship to each other. It's not atomistic."
An understanding of the relationships among a band's musicians is no less crucial with Rangda than it is with Radiohead. What's undeniably different, however, are the roles each musician plays. Just like any ordinary rock band, Rangda uses a music-making process that can be thought of as a rules-based game—but the rules, and the roles they define, are more plastic and sometimes fade almost completely away.
Chasny's description of the process is succinct: "going for it." Though Rangda does write the occasional pure tune, the trio works mostly with the improviser's toolbox. Parameters are set, and for any piece that consists predominantly of improvisation, desired ends are roughly mapped out in advance—but once the musicians start to play, "going for it" is how they coordinate the action.
French thinker Jacques Attali, in his 1985 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, called improvisation an "exchange of coded messages" wherein musicians offer up their individual codes or plug into a shared code in the process of elaboration. If in rock 'n' roll each player is governed by rules specific to his instrument, then improvisation is essentially an amendment to that activity. Some rules are stripped away, so that governing power falls largely to the means of communication: musical language. It's no coincidence that AC/DC's "Let There Be Rock" and Little Richard's rendition of "Keep a Knockin'" maintain flirty contact despite coming two decades apart. They speak the same language, plug into the same code.
The storied quartet albums that saxophonist Ornette Coleman cut for Atlantic in the late 50s and early 60s—The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music—were predicated on a simple schema. Horns, bass, and drums establish a theme; trumpet drops out and sax goes it alone over a propulsive rhythm section. Interaction between bass and drums isn't determined by notation but rather left up to the players: it can, and does, change from take to take. After a round of solos, the ensemble re-embraces the theme—the one constant piece of musical furniture. Rangda's mix of composition and improvisation isn't dissimilar.
Coleman's codes grew eventually into the consuming musical philosophy of harmolodics. Rangda's codes aren't likely to cohere into anything so grand, but they remain a collection of useful idioms, judiciously employed by three players who've spent their lives absorbing and honing musical languages. Each piece on the band's debut, False Flag, is built from questions posed in different manners of speaking but understood by everyone involved in the conversation. Chasny, Corsano, and Bishop may change codes on the fly, but they don't speak past one another. "Improvisation does not prohibit communication," Attali wrote. "It changes the rules."
In some cases, of course, there are rules for changing the rules. When the direction is "go for it," the game is easily understood. Jazz drummer Max Roach went for it, as did an early incarnation of free-rockers Magik Markers. Whoever plugs in a guitar and repetitively rakes power chords in a garage in Anywhere, USA, is going for it. If there exists a universal rule for changing the rules, it's for the musicians to lose themselves—to fade almost completely away—in the pursuit of "it," to give in to the "going" and submit to pure sound. The idea of affording sound precedence over notation is rooted deeply in jazz and even more so in improvisation.
When musicians lose themselves, it often makes for unruly, "difficult" music, which regardless of pedigree gets shoved into the recesses of the jazz closet. The word jazz isn't just for saxy ballads one slurps soup to; it's attached to grizzled African-Americans in dashikis setting stages on fire with volcanic overblowing and blood-sport drumming. Morphine's fratty murk-rock ends up in the same big pile as the heady large-ensemble game pieces of composer and saxophonist John Zorn, guided by a conductor's hand gestures and other visual cues. So do Ken Vandermark's blissful neo-hard bop, the "bells together" sax terrorism of Borbetomagus, and the terrific splattercore of the trio Ascension, led by guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn. Somewhere in this gamut falls False Flag, which harnesses the dualism of horror and euphoria exemplified by the free-jazz bands of the mid- to late 1960s—volatile urban provocateurs whose records could be found on ESP-Disk and BYG Actuel.
"I don't know if [Rangda] is jazz," Chasny says. "I do think it is a 'joyful noise,' and it feels good to play music that is joyful. I don't really do that very often. I just hope the joy is in there enough for others to feel it too. We were all sort of familiar with each other's playing; it wasn't a totally hard 'code' to crack. We wanted to have fun and improvise as much as possible as well as write a few tunes."
Chasny's output in other settings is frequently filed under neofolk or New Weird America, subgenres whose associations are with sun-soaked eureka or narcotic introversion. Rangda may be joyful, but the band's named for a Balinese child-devouring goddess, and its unrepentantly naked aggression evokes more than hippie love-ins.
Too much aggression tends to fatigue the players and bore the listeners. But False Flag's mix of improvisation and composition keeps the densest of its pieces loose, even sprawling. Corsano, physically and mentally tireless, lays a foundation of roiling polyrhythms. Chasny favors searing caterwauls, creating huge sheets of sound that alternate with frantic picking and dissolve in pure feedback—he hasn't sounded this unchained since 2005's Plays the Book of Revelations, an end-of-days duo with Echoplex wizard Noel Von Harmonson, his bandmate in Comets on Fire. Bishop grounds Chasny's wilder flights, concocting strange amalgams of classic rock and "world music." When Bishop assumes control, as on "Plain of Jars," the trio's cosmic God-bothering is reminiscent at times of the Grateful Dead's most aggressive live incarnation, captured on Live/Dead, and at others feels like a sublime homage to Nubian oud and tar player Hamza el Din.
At the record's core is the relentless shredding of "Waldorf Hysteria," "Fist Family," and "Serrated Edges." These three pieces toy with the primordial selflessness that experimental jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock explored on his 1970 album Monkey-Pockie-Boo, but the musicians balance the descent into shapelessness by submitting to repetitive figures or restrictive protocols. For the raucous "Fist Family," they split into strings and skins factions; the guitars erect a house full of screaming cats while Corsano shakes its foundation.
"These songs could be charted on something of an improv/composed continuum, since each piece has a little of each," Chasny says. "Chris actually conceptualized 'Fist Family.' He wanted a song where the guitars are bending notes very close to each other in order to create the beats that happen with wavelengths when they are nearly in tune. When we asked what he was planning to do, he sort of just gave a 'don't worry about me' response and then it was done. I definitely see 'Fist Family' as more of a minimalist composition. But I guess one with maximalist drumming! We're only sliding between two notes the entire time. Corsano is the engine keeping that song flying."
Though many other contemporary ensembles operating in similar territory like to use foreboding or morbid imagery (Zorn's infamous jazz/metal/dub trio, Painkiller, called its first EP Guts of a Virgin), Chasny maintains that Rangda's music is inherently life-affirming.
"When we were coming up with song titles, Corsano said he'd like to stay away from death themes," he says. "I realize how easy it is to defer to themes like that, especially in our culture. I'm not talking about some bullshit hippie co-op shit. I mean, Trent Reznor can call his new band How to Destroy Angels and yes, it's a reference to Coil, but does he really think that's a statement? I'd be much more blown away if he had a title that showed he understood some sort of Avicennian-type angelology as it relates to a metaphysical epistemology, and how the loss of that cosmology has implications far more drastic than being big, bad, scary, and dark. Go through the thing, instead of trying to react against it.
"That is my point: take a stance and be violently joyful—because it's harder. The more bullshit that gets piled on, sometimes the more violent you have to be for happiness."