Rhys Chatham's Essentialist | Empty Bottle, 9/20
So Rhys Chatham, who just turned 54, has a metal band now. If he's suffering a midlife crisis and Essentialist is his red sports car, it's actually a bit of a step down for him. Considering the size of the ensembles he's assembled during his long career--his composition A Crimson Grail, a recording of which is forthcoming in December on Table of the Elements, calls for 400 electric guitars--starting a five-piece band is more like taking a vow of poverty. This is a man who recently told the Detroit Metro Times he actually enjoys his chronic tinnitus: "It's kind of beautiful, like having these wonderful minimalist tones ringing all the time, without having to wear an iPod." (Of course, he's also said he took up the trumpet because the necessary breath control cured his impotence, so perhaps a grain of salt or two is in order.)
Chatham certainly didn't form Essentialist to prove he could still cut it in that macho sound world where insane volume levels are the preferred method of cockfighting--his credibility on that front is already permanently assured. He has a background as a classical pianist, studied with La Monte Young, and in the 70s curated experimental-music programs at the Kitchen in New York, but all along he's been the most rock 'n' roll guy in the downtown avant pantheon--more so than John Cale, never mind Glenn Branca. Even if you don't know that he fell hard for the Ramones, you can hear it in his aggressive take on minimalism's worship of the overtone: the cranked-up guitars have a searing metallic brutality, like someone shaking a huge sheet of steel, and the rhythms are mostly simple and backbeat driven. Die Donnergotter, a recent collection of small-band pieces from the 70s and 80s (all of which also appear on the 2002 box set An Angel Moves Too Fast to See), sounds like the good parts of every Sonic Youth record run together. Chatham's the perfect poster boy for the fusion of avant-garde precision and rock 'n' roll aggression that came out of the New York underground scene of the 80s--or he would've been, if he hadn't expatriated to Paris at the end of the decade and become one of those artists more heard about than heard.
For much of the 90s Chatham continued to pop up here and there, recruiting a hundred or so local guitarists to shiver the heavens by planging ritualistically through one of his mesmerizingly simple scores, and lately the Table of the Elements label has embarked on a series of reissues and new releases, the aforementioned collections among them. The aptly named Essentialist, which debuted earlier this month in Atlanta, is a leaner, meaner beast, and according to one reviewer inspired violinist Tony Conrad to dance around the room like a mad hippie. Chatham says the idea is to break metal down to its essence and explore what makes it truly heavy, and he claims to be inspired by such bands as Earth, Sleep, and Sunn 0))).
This may well make Essentialist redundant out of the box--after all, this has all been done, right? Everybody knows what makes metal heavy: the bottom end, the distortion, the brutal volume. How can you strip it down further than Sunn 0))) already has, especially with five people in your band?
In Essentialist Chatham is joined by drummer Joe Stickney of Bear in Heaven, bassist Byron Westbrook of Winter Pageant, and two fellow guitarists: Adam Wills, also of Bear in Heaven, and David Daniell, who's played in San Agustin and in February, an ongoing concern of former Swans drummer Jonathan Kane, himself an occasional Chatham collaborator. None of those bands--Bear in Heaven, Winter Pageant, San Agustin, February--is metal. Only Kane's project is even particularly aggressive. Still, when Essentialist was setting up at the Empty Bottle and I realized just how far the soundwoman had turned up the drum mikes, I felt actual fear. Because I'm a self-destructive moron, my ears were going commando--I was having the same feeling you get at a street demonstration when the crowd's packed too tight for you to run if the tear gas starts flying.
No one's actually followed through with a performance that justified that kind of fear since Keiji Haino's Fushitsusha literally made me hallucinate at the same venue ten years ago. And for better or worse, it wasn't justified in this case. The band opened with a series of tantalizing, ringing open chords, building exquisitely, and then the two young guys penetrated them with crunchy, high-speed metal riffing. (Chatham's no guitar hero himself--his playing was a little stiff and tentative--but Daniell in particular could do this stuff for a living if he wanted to.) It wasn't so much like Earth or Sleep or Electric Wizard or Khanate or the rest of the death-by-tar-pit gang--it was more like, well, Metallica. Maybe I heard a little Venom in there, even. This was fine by me: it made Essentialist sound less like a backhanded tribute, an attempt by "artists" to deconstruct and appropriate, and more like a weird-ass version of metal these five guys picked up because it happens to be the kind they really fucking like.
Every time I hear a band that can find the perfect base-of-the-spine riff and ride it to infinity, I always wonder why no one's thought to do it before--even if that very afternoon I was listening to a record that used the same trick. It really does sound fresh every time if it's done right. (Here's how Chatham described his method ten years ago: "My goal is to get in touch with my audience's spirit-body by creating a series of extremely repetitious, mind-deadening sounds.") Add to this unassailable riffing Chatham's signature swells of droning, oddly tuned guitar--the sonic equivalent of that tranced-out thousand-yard stare he gets--and it's possible to convince yourself that this really is a new thing under the sun. It's not metal reduced to its essence; it's more like metal plus something else, something you didn't think could quite fit.
After a stretch of high-energy minimalist thrash, the band backed off from headbanging territory. Chatham's chords rang out amid a double E-Bow drone and Stickney's methodical drum detonations (he reminded me more than a bit of Kane on those terrifying early Swans records, which ought to get more credit for anticipating the doom boom). I swayed, I tranced. There was a bit of dancing. I thought, yeah, these guys would do just fine touring with High on Fire or Isis or one of those other artsy metal bands with crossover appeal--just so long as they don't hook up with guys trying to pass themselves off as truly evil and dark. Because even when Chatham's music is at its most martial and intimidating, something about the way he leads an ensemble makes it sound ridiculously joyous. No matter how punishing the volume or how strictly mapped the tones, the music is always crowned with a sort of playful shimmering. The overtones seem to giggle, as I think I might have myself when the silver-threaded gnat notes started floating out of the noise and dancing in my skull--I looked at the three guitarists to see whose hands were moving, and of course no one's were.
"That's the end of our scheduled set," Chatham announced after locating the lone vocal mike. "But would you like to hear one more number?" he added, affecting a self-consciously silly voice--he knew damn well the encore was right there on the set list and he hadn't even bothered to leave the stage. That last number was a Marshall-ized (and slightly shortened) version of his radiant and ever-evolving 1977 composition Guitar Trio, which pulsated, cycled, and swelled--in its own way it was as essential as Essentialist ever got.
Afterward the audience was nicely battered and dazed. It wasn't a big drinking crowd, so anybody having trouble walking in a straight line was probably dealing with some newly inflicted inner-ear issues. I'm looking forward to Essentialist's debut album, which is being recorded here in Chicago at Semaphore Recording and ought to come out sometime next year--especially because it's likely to mean that Chatham will be touring in his native country that much more often. Here's hoping this small and portable band makes
him feel lean and young again, and reminds him (and us) that his music is made to be experienced not just in concert halls or amphitheaters but in small and smoky black-painted bars.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.