In 1981, a trio of somewhat unknown musicians associated with the New York "downtown" scene created a group called Massacre and released the quirky, eclectic and intriguing album, Killing Time.
Bassist Bill Laswell had yet to produce the groundbreaking "Rockit" for Herbie Hancock, which propelled him into a visibility that gave him the notoriety and funds to produce other acts and embark on a remarkable career as a producer of the self-described "collision music," in which musicians from all over the world were brought together in live and studio settings to create sounds no one else had done before or since.
Fred Frith, guitarist and bass player, best known, if at all, for his work in the experimental group Henry Cow, was also someone who would get some attention and acclaim for a wide variety of projects and especially became known for his unusual approach to playing the guitar, including the use of chains, tools, and other devices to coax strange and wonderful sounds from the instrument.
The short-lived 80s version of the band also included the young drummer Fred Maher, who was a member with Laswell in the early lineup of Material, a band that issued some unusual and often-impressive work before the moniker was assumed by Laswell for any number of his "collision music" projects, especially the classic 1994 Hallucination Engine album covered previously in this blog.
Massacre, however, was suddenly revived in 1998 by Frith and Laswell, who recruited drummer (and occasional melodica player) Charles Hayward, whose work with This Heat was known to some more adventurous listeners of English "alternative rock." A studio album, Funny Valentine, and two live sets, Meltdown, recorded at the festival of that name in 2001, and the staggering Lonely Heart, taped at two European festivals in 2003, have marked the releases thus far, on John Zorn's Tzadik label, from the reconstituted group.
Some observers were troubled by the fact that two-thirds of the original group could bring someone else in and revive the name, as if that has only very rarely happened before. The reality is: Massacre is a showcase for the incredible talent and sound of Frith, with the able assistance of whatever quality rhythm section gives him the support and assistance, as well as space, to create his mesmerizing magic.
What distinguishes Lonely Heart from the earlier Meltdown is that Frith largely eschews the use of extraneous materials to ornament his playing—and this is not to denigrate his doing this, as the results on Meltdown are pretty amazing.
But, Frith's stripped-down approach to playing on Lonely Heart is also combined with the fact that Massacre opened for metal demigods Metallica for some of these performances and it seems as if the trio felt they had to adapt their completely improvised sounds for the type of audience they were playing in front of. Still, it is a version of Massacre that retains its own identity, if there can be said to be one, and yet works extremely well for the conditions.
As said above and elsewhere, this is Frith's showcase and he makes the most of it throughout, especially on the mammoth opener, "Send," which extends for twenty minutes, but goes by so quickly, because Laswell and Hayward provide such a varied and supple support to Frith's staggering display of chops. "Step" displays Laswell's longtime penchant for reggae and dub rhythms and Frith's spare playing is almost like a breather before the trio launches into "In," a 7:40 tour-de-force for the guitarist, whose quirky inventiveness appears to have no limits. Frith is simply all over the frets with a variety of picking and strumming techniques with rapid runs, jagged tones and all manner of wild and woolly playing while the rhythm section ably gives him the space and foundational support to do whatever strikes his fancy.
Then comes another massive display of dynamics and power, "Gracias a La Vida," which is over eighteen minutes, and it starts off with almost dueling guitars, as Laswell, like no other bassist, plays chords like a rhythm guitarist and Frith plays slide guitar in an atmospheric and bluesy fashion. Then, all bets are off in the last few minutes of the piece, as Frith shoots for the stratosphere with some incredibly fierce fireworks.
"Return" gives the appearance of an encore and it's a downtempo and almost ambient performance. Hayward plays some of his melodica, while Frith fiddles with effects to create a yearning sound, while Laswell quietly adds his sense of elastic rhythm to the proceedings. It's moody end to a fiery record of masterful performances by three musicians who know how to improvise without letting the freedom get the best of them. There's order to the mayhem and discipline to the joy of being able to create whatever comes to these excellent players in the moment.
Fred Frith is one of the most exciting and creative guitarists around and Lonely Heart and the supportiveness of Laswell, who excels at this in his many other projects with great musicians (Foday Musa Suso, Tony Williams, Sonny Sharrock, Pharoah Sanders, Buckethead, Peter Brötzmann, etc.), and Hayward, whose drumming always seems to where it needs to be, no easy task in this kind of setting and these types of fellow musicians.
Beautifully and clearly recorded by Oz Fritz, this album is a preeminent example of live improvisatory music that does need labels to adhere to it--it stands on its own as a great example of what three excellent players can do in an inspired setting.