If you have ever heard a concert by Rhys Chatham, you know it can be terribly, brutally loud. Not the kind of loud that an amplifier alone can make, but the kind a scientist of noise can make. A guy who knows what combination of tones and volume will produce the most overtone intervals and make your brain say, "I feel funny," or, "I hear things that aren't really there." It's not something to subject yourself to on a regular basis, but it's definitely an experience to have at some point in your life: 150 decibels, about the level of a jet engine at takeoff. That's a live experience.
Rhys Chatham has paid the price for creating that level of sound he has a pronounced case of tinnitus. To most people, a constant ringing in the ears would be annoying, and probably debilitating. But not Chatham. As he says in his upbeat way, "It's kind of beautiful, like having these wonderful minimalist tones ringing all the time, without having to wear an iPod.
"The guitars accentuate those tones, and play off them."
Those would be the axes in the Essentialist. It's the latest incarnation of the avant-garde aesthetic he's been perfecting since the early '70s, when he set the tone for New York City's "downtown" scene with his music program at the Kitchen, the city's famous performance, video, and music space. Chatham brought in notables such as Philip Glass, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, and Steve Reich, and was a significant influence on the work of Sonic Youth, as well as the post-rock scene that would flourish in the late '80s and early '90s.
In recent years Chatham has been living in Paris, performing his 100-guitar orchestral pieces throughout Europe and releasing recordings of improvisational trumpet, electronics and percussion. He hadn't removed himself completely from the U.S. scene, but compared to his followers, understudies, and copycats, Chatham has been far enough removed that it seemed he was gone, except as a historical figure.
That changed with a brief U.S. tour earlier this year, when Chatham shared the bill with old friends like legendary minimalist violin player and filmmaker Tony Conrad and Jonathan Kane's February (Kane co-founded Swans in 1981). Chatham's band included Kane on drums, current collaborator David Daniell on guitar, guitarist Chris Brokaw (formerly of Come and GG Allin's band), Tortoise's Doug McCombs and Chatham's longtime bandmate Ernie Brooks (co-founder of the Modern Lovers back in 1969). It was a showcase of both contemporary and legendary avant-rock players, with the three bandleaders each having collaborated at one time or another with Young, the biggest name in minimalism, as far back as 1961.
Chatham says he hadn't been planning on working with Conrad again after those shows. But when Conrad performed in Paris recently to a sold-out house, Chatham sat in as a way of getting into the concert. Based on the success of the Paris gig, the two now have plans to revive their collaboration, a partnership that's lasted more than three decades.
Chatham has assembled a new band for his current tour. But the Essentialist also features a new approach. This time around it's the heaviest metal, distorted, slow, and of course loud.
To draw on heavy metal is a logical step in Chatham's progression of sonic boundary-breaking. He describes how guitarist David Daniell (also of the improvisational trio San Agustin) played him "Dope Smoker" by drone-metal heavyweights Sleep. They both liked the stripped-down aspect of the metal guitar sounds, the way the track relied on the bludgeoning repetition of a riff instead of extraneous material like hair, the human voice or guitar solos.
With all of that removed, only the essentials of the music were left, and Chatham and Daniell then applied that concept to their new project, rounding out their ranks with guitarist Adam Wills (Bear in Heaven), bassist Byron Westbrook (Winter Pageant), and Bear in Heaven drummer Joe Stickney. But while The Essentialist is based in the concepts and sound quality of the drone metal scene currently led by bands like Sleep and Sunn 0))), Chatham and his band also try to remove much of the inherent darkness in that music, and instead focus on the liberating quality of sound stripped bare. It's about celebrating the joy of metal, not the pain of it.
That's except for the loudness, of course. It's both a precaution and a compliment that you'll receive free earplugs at Chatham's Detroit show. Are you ready to make your brain feel funny?
Sunday, Sept. 17 at Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman, Detroit; 313-737-6606. With THTX.
Detroit-based musician and writer Bill Brovold was part of New York’s downtown scene in the ’80s and early ’90s. He leads the group Larval, whose most recent recording is Obedience on the Cuneiform