Genetically altered rock

It would seem that Bill Brovold, the aural architect behind Detroit's Larval, has gone to great lengths to make music that is indescribably auspicious. But for iconic sonic experimenter John Zorn -- who released Larval's eponymous 1997 debut -- pinning down this band's enigmatic appeal is simple.

"Basically, he (Brovold) sent me a tape, and I listened to it. And it just blew me away. I called him and I said, 'Wow, this stuff is amazing. I've never heard anything like it. It's got the raw power of Link Wray, but it's mixed with this really intelligent, sophisticated compositional vision.'

"We've had instrumental rock. Rhys Chatham did that kind of stuff and (Glenn) Branca," Zorn says. "But there's something about Bill's stuff that really touches a nerve. It's not too intellectual and it's not too shake-your-booty. He's got the right percentage of both."

It may be easy for an experienced ear like Zorn's to pick out what's cool about Larval. But to most other ears, the really striking thing about the band's cryptic instrumental meddling is its adjunct accessibility. This may be best explained by looking at Brovold's kaleidoscopic professional history: He has brandished a paintbrush at the School of Visual Arts in New York, worked on the backdrop for Cyndi Lauper's music video "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and then took a five-year break on a farm in Washington state where he composed music in an old barn. But high art, low art or no art, Brovold's boundless interest in the sonic elements of popular music -- heavy metal, surf guitar, punk, etc. -- survived.

During the 1980s, he bounced between exhibiting his paintings across the United States and Europe and growing and expanding as a composer and musician. He played guitar with the Rhys Chatham Ensemble, the East Village Orchestra and Fast Forward; shook up the scene in New York's No Wave movement; and founded the Zen Vikings with Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks and saxophonist Otto Kentrol (both of whom have recorded with Larval.)

Brovold came to Detroit from his West Coast hiatus in 1994 and brought a pile of genre-defying compositions with him. Some of them can be found on the new disc -- a series of inventive plays on sound and style that never let the creative cat out of the bag. Larval's wry interpretation of surf guitar ("Surfing in Detroit"), for example, might make Dick Dale want to throw in his beach towel. But you get the idea that this just might please Larval to no end.

"I try, in my visual art and my music, to stay away from pure, stylized work," Brovold explains. "I try not to become neo-expressionist or abstract whateverist. ... I try to keep the music away from being pure minimalism or avant-garde contemporary classical. I try not to pigeonhole what I am doing. I use whatever tools I need from either a style or a form or whatever and disregard whatever I don't."

This open-ended rationale worked well for the guitarist-arranger as he set out to form a band in the Motor City. Players were drawn to his mosaic vision and, with its inherent tactile approach to the use of sound, the music's consequent lack of limitations. Even Brovold's blatant deconstruction of popular music becomes acceptable, as genetically altered rock riffs and transmuted melodies let each composition speak -- to even the bottommost of booty shakers -- in its own eloquent musical language.

Brovold found studio space in Royal Oak which he dubbed "Larville." There, surrounded by his massive paintings, folding chairs, standing ashtrays and some basic recording equipment, he began making demos and gradually assembled a full band.

In November 1995, Larval played its first headlining show in Detroit and continued making regular appearances on the club scene with various arriving and departing members. The lineup, which brings together musicians from diverse backgrounds, now includes Brovold; guitarist Erik Gustafson (Circle of Confusion, ex-Blue Dog); guitarist Beth Wilusz (the Drones); bassist Dean Western (Mick Vranich and Wordban'd); drummer Will Osler (Rodney Whitaker); violinist Mary Alice (the Witches), and Detroit saxophonist Johnny Evans (Howling Diablos, ex-Urbations) who sat in with Brovold's Zen Vikings at CBGBs in New York in the late '80s.

"Everyone in the band now arranges their own part," Brovold says. "So we're just like this giant quilt of musical styles sewn into one song. We beat it and work on it and change it until we have a sound that seems right to us. We aren't interested in covering songs or sounding like anyone else, but we pick pockets from any style we want to and turn it into something that sounds right. Maybe I started this, but I couldn't do this alone or with just any combination of musicians.

"Johnny, for example, is just a fucking dictionary of music. That whole idea of drawing from bebop horn playing, Chicago Art Ensemble, Detroit R&B to basic rock 'n' roll appealed to me. He really listens and when he gets ahold of it, invents it."

In addition to his regular bands, Evans has played shows with an extensive mix of artists, most recently a July performance at the Trumbull Street Theater with poet John Sinclair and the Blues Scholars. With his background, Evans may be most qualified to call Brovold a real oddity in Detroit, the city synonymous with Motown, Midwest punk and blue-collar rock that continues to kick out the post-MC5-Stooges jams through a lineage of bands like Sponge, Speedball and Hoarse.

"Bill is a unique cat," Evans says. "He has a really unusual background as far as the arts. It goes through his painting, his music, everything. A lot of it is from being a part of the No Wave scene or whatever they called it in New York in the '80s. Not many people in Detroit have that experience and Bill went through it. So I think a lot of this stuff was generated out of that."

Oddity though he may be, Brovold has drawn a respectable audience in the Detroit area where he has welded his high art exposure to the sensibilities of pop culture with an inexplicably aesthetic outcome. And somewhere within that smoldering fusion we know as Larval, familiar strains of music are disconnected from their tired struggle for identity, making the points of origin seem frustratingly clear, even as the possible musical destinations evade us.

But perhaps John Zorn put it most succinctly: "This is the shit!" Norene Cashen writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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