Review Summary: A colourful, enthusiastic, usually-hit-but-sometimes-miss album that is certainly worth the effort of getting into.
It is not exactly known when the Secret Chiefs 3
was formed, but their first cry for attention was a 7" vinyl record entitled The legendary paper project
, packaged with the LP version of Mr. Bungle
's bizarre avant-garde masterpiece Disco Volante
. Conveniently, the trio consisted entirely of Bunglists - in effect, bass wizard Trevor Dunn and drum magician Danny Heifetz providing assistance to guitar sorcerer Trey Spruance's train-of-thoughty experiments.
One year later, in 1996, First Grand Constitution and bylaws
was released as the first of presently four studio albums by the Secret Chiefs 3, which would quickly after become a pretty inapplicable name for 'Trey, Danny, And Lots Of Guests From All Over The World'. See, Dunn left before any other albums could be made, and instead Trey would start inviting Indian and Middle-Eastern musicians and composers, pick up some ethnic instruments himself (saz, habab organ, tar, what-have-you) and embark on a breathtaking adventure where East meets West and fuses into an incredible, unique and exciting take on "world music".
However, this turn of events is foreboded only sparsely on this debut - staying true to Bungle ethics, this is an album that covers a wide, wide range of genres, and the Middle-Eastern sidesteps are even more incidental than Trey's Desert search for Techno Allah
was to Disco Volante
There is enough material here for 6 complete albums worth of actual songs - i.e. tracks in the 3-9 minute range that follow (some sort of) a distinguishable structure. However, Trey made just four - or let's say five and count the 5-track semi-epic Emir of the bees
(which will not be on your copy if it is not the 2000 reissue).
is an upbeat tango with a fantastic, catchy lead melody and minimalistic stop-go rhythm section. Halfway it breaks down into bitonal free jazz bits, and finally returns to the main theme - which now finds itself fortified by several tasty spray-on latin guitar licks! Awesome!
Killing of kings
is a hilarious paraphrasing of AC/DC's For those about to rock (including his take on the famous "Fire!" yell), now telling us that "rock and roll is a thing that needs to die" while at the same time providing us with everything we need to rock out hard - steady grooves, doubled vocals and coarse language - until it finally degenerates into what is probably the best noisefest on the disc.
Emir of the bees
takes us through 5 miniatures of experimenting with the Middle Eastern scales and sounds that would dominate the following albums, meanwhile quickly skipping through a variety of rhythms and styles. An interesting listen with some pretty strong moments, and a few weak ones.
Resurrection Day soundtrack: Hot pursuit in eagles' nest
is a wonderful, wonderful collage of Stravinsky-style bitonality, alternating a plain and simple funkrock riff, served on a thick layer of acid/industrial drums.
Finally White as they come
closes the album: a song built on a tight high-range-bass-heavy new wave groove, with spacey 'n droney 'n feedbacky guitar leads, heavily distorted mumbling vocals AND an actual chorus - and boy is it delicious. Unfortunately it only comes around twice during the whole 8 minute length - half of the song is saved for another noise improv that is not bad per se, but certainly not as enticing as the vocal parts.
Make no mistake about it: the merry bunch I have just described is grade A quality alternative music material, and should be your first hint that Secret Chiefs 3 is capable of inventing music that, as it turns out, you had always been wanting to hear. However, in order to fully appreciate the remainder of the album - 16 quite short and downright wacky tracks - it might help to know The Deal With Trey.
The deal with Trey is that he often likes to obscure his genius with one of the following : obnoxious screaming, near inaudible whispering, goofy death metal, sloppy Renaissance-esque synth fugue, gruesomely distorted tape/mic noise, corny carnival themes, and randomly placed melody snippets performed by whatever instrument is least likely to do so. Admittedly, this may not always be in the music's best interest. However, clinging on to the parts that are recognizable as 'music', you can eventually relax your eardrums entirely and find several gems beneath the scorched patches of wicked earth - the superb ambient breakdown in Breeze of dawn: Death's angel
where Dunn performs a delightful bass solo, the crunchy metal riff buildup in Adept chamber of the Magian Tavern
, the organically rising terror of Celestial ship of the Corsairs
This strategy, when applied correctly, leaves just a small bunch of ever so skippable tracks - most notably, the three Borderland
s, comprised entirely out of noise and nonsense. Since it's not obscuring anything here, I can think of absolute no justification for putting these on the album. Mind you, I am aware that even the greatest artist on earth should be able to make mistakes and learn from them, but that doesn't mean they have to end up in my CD player.
So my advice to you, dear reader, is take a little time to figure out which tracks to skip, and enjoy the good 45 minutes left. There is a lot of fun in digesting this all-you-can-eat buffet of sound, maybe even more so if (like me) you can plea guilty of recording an "experimental solo album" in the comfort of your own bedroom. I would not recommend it as your first Secret Chiefs 3 album - check out Hurqalya (Second Grand Constitution and bylaws)
, Book M
or Book of Horizons
first. All three are much more congruent and outspoken. But this debut is more than just blueprints for them. Let it grow on you!