Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bill Laswell/Material: Hallucination Engine

Like his frequent collaborator, John Zorn (subject of the last post,) bassist and producer Bill Laswell utterly defies categorization.  Unlike anyone else in modern music (though at least one online commentator calls him, without much specificity, "the worst producer" in music), Laswell engages in consistently inventive "mash-ups" with musicians from all over the world, to the point where the performers generally never know on what album the end product will wind up. 

Consequently, Laswell's projects are fascinating excursions in the ultimate fusions of sounds and styles from hip-hop, rock, jazz, world and electronic influences.  Some of his groups, including Last Exit, Pain Killer, Divination, Method of Defiance and Praxis, are incredible conglomerations that bring together fantastic talent in invariably inspired situations.  In other cases, projects might be collaborations with single musicians, such as with ambient mastermind Pete Namlook of FAX Records in the Outland and Psychonavigation series.  Then, there are the one-offs or nearly so, like the amazing Tabla Beat Science, bringing together Indian tabla playing with electronic sounds, or the stunning SXL, which brought Korean-style drumming with Western instrumentation on the remarkable Into the Outlands recording.  Finally, under the Island-distributed imprint Axiom, started in the late 80s and continuing for several highly-productive years, Laswell spearheaded the release of phenomenal world music recordings that ranged from the traditional to the highly fused (that is, with Western styles and instruments.)  Needless to say, with hundreds of albums over the years, he has applied his playing, production, arranging and recombining in mind-blowingly varied ways.

While Laswell proably garnered his earliest attention to most people through his production work on Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album nearly thirty years ago, which garnered the hit record "Rockit," his first notable project was with the New York collective Material.  Working in the postpunk environment of the late 70s, starting with the album Temporary Music, the band folded rather quickly, but Laswell, working with Nicky Skopelitis on guitars and synthesizer, reconfigured the ensemble into one that moved easily through genres on subsequent recordings.

In 1994, YHB got the first substantive exposure to Laswell's musical mash-up philosophy with Hallucination Engine, one of the last Axiom recordings.  A quick reading of the featured musicians is a marvel:  jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, reggae drum master Sly Dunbar (a.k.a. Drumbar), oud player and violinist Simon Shaheen, Parliament-Funkadelic stalwarts Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, tabla players Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu, percussionist Aiyb Dieng, and ney player Ali Jihad Racy are just some of the notables.  Plus, there is a spoken-word appearance by poet and cut-up theorist William S. Burroughs on the track "Words of Advice," that is worth a listen just for the gravelly world-weary expostulating by Burroughs.

Dub, Indian music, Middle Eastern sounds, funk, jazz, ambient electronica and more make for a truly remarkable musical excursion on Hallucination Engine.  It's hard to imagine a recording more eclectic than this one, but with Bill Laswell this smorgasbord of sound is standard operating procedure and his work will be covered extensively in this blog because of the excitement and interest it brings.

Material:  Hallucination Engine (Axiom 314-518 351-2, 1994)

1.  Black Light, 7:33
2.  Mantra, 8:44
3.  Ruins (Submutation Dub), 8:54
4.  Eternal Drift, 7:35
5.  Words of Advice, 3:58
6.  Cucumber Slumber (Fluxus Mix), 7:30
7.  The Hidden Garden/Naima, 13:00
8.  Shadows of Paradise, 9:45

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