Saturday, November 25, 2006

Blackened woman

Sonny Sharrock's "Black Woman" is to late 'sixties blues and rock what Khlyst's "Chaos is my name" is to black and doom metal.

Khlyst is a collaboration between metal maverick James Plotkin and northern siren Runhild Gammelsaeter. Gammelsaeter made her burn mark on metal with Thorr's Hammer, an early (1995) doom project of Sunn o)))'s Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson; after disappearing into oblivion for almost a decade, she rematerialized on Sunn o)))'s 'White 1' album. And James Plotkin? To make more than a cursory sketch of his musical career would require this review to be tens of thousands words long. Suffice to say that his roots are in the fertile soil of late-'eighties-to-early-'nineties British grindcore, the very same sooty and smelly soil bands like Skullflower, Godflesh and Scorn grew from. Like these bands, Plotkin's work has always been ideosyncratic: his grindcore band 'Old' used: "vocoded voice, looped guitar, synth guitar, bass, tapes, rhythm machine... and a drop of 303" - can that still be called grindcore? Plotkin's best known band is, without any doubt, the now defunct Khanate.

Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994) was a free jazz electric guitarist. He played with many jazz greats, such as Dave Burrell, Norris Jones (a.k.a. Sirone), Milford Graves, Elvin Jones, Peter Brötzman, John Zorn, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, and Herbie Mann. Transposing John Coltrane's and Pharaoh Sanders free jazz saxophone technique to the guitar, his axe was a dissonant blowtorch welding fiery free jazz to the blues. His playing has been compared with that of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock's approach to paint. Sharrock's 1996 album "Black Woman" is perhaps the best known of his oeuvre. On the album, Sharrock's wife Linda sings. Sings? It is more of a free jazz speaking in tongues, extatic chanting, shouting, screaming, howling and yelping ... a voice in terribly bad taste but somehow still engrossing in it's shamelessness - a very late-1960's shamelessness, that is.

Why compare Khlyst's "Chaos is my name" to Sharrock's "Black woman"? The eight chapters of Khlyst's shortish (35 minutes) album feature Plotkin on guitar - which is unusual, as he normally play bass. Plotkin's guitar conjures up a Sharrock-like soundworld, albeit one heavily treated by electronica - visceral drones and monolithic sub-basses, screaming overtones and distortion. And Runhild Gaemmelsaeter is Plotkin's Linda, but an undead Linda, screeching, grunting and moaning like a banshee, like a decomposing freejazz Diamanda Galas without professional operatic training.

Notwithstanding the musical affinities between Sharrock and Khlyst,"Chaos is my name" is a far cry from 1960's free jazz black power angry-yet-selfconfident, progressive, emancipatory optimism. Full of failures, sufferings, anxieties, terrors, rages, and humiliations, it is a Niflheim, a dark and misty hell of an album, and it's orientation on the retro-futurist axis is the reverse of that of bands like Broadcast, or of British record labels Mordant and Ghost Box's rosters - it is futuristically retrogressive, oriented backwards, backwards, downwards, spiraling towards the blackened void that history tries to hide but cannot help but point towards.

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