Thursday, December 17, 2015

Massacre: Love Me Tender

After the remarkable guitarist Fred Frith left the British group Henry Cow in the late Seventies, he moved to New York and became acquainted with the rhythm section of Material, featuring drummer Fred Maher and bassist Bill Laswell.

Calling themselves Massacre, the trio released a 1981 studio album, Killing Time, and completed a slate of live performances before Maher quit the short-lived group.  Although Frith and Laswell formed another trio with Golden Palominos drummer Anton Fier and performed some Massacre tunes later in the decade, it was not until 1998 that the band was resurrected, this time with British drummer Charles Hayward of This Heat.

Signed to John Zorn's Tzadik label, the group recorded a studio album and two live recordings, one of which, Lonely Heart, was featured here in 2013, before Frith culled the archives of festival performances in Germany and Switzerland in 1999 and a performance in June 2008 in Italy to assemble Love Me Tender, released in 2012.

Because Massacre's music was improvised, it doesn't, to this listener, much matter whether the edited performances come across as "songs," despite the sequencing and titling, the latter drawn from poet Lyn Hjinian's mid-1970s collection Writing is an Aid to Memory.

What makes this album compelling is the wide array of sounds coaxed by Frith from his electric guitar, parallelled in many ways by Laswell's similarly experimental approach to playing the bass.  Hayward plays a bit of melodica and provides some wobbly vocalizations in addition to his steady and reliable drumming, providing a bedrock for his compatriots to build from.

It is difficult generally to point out highlights in terms of the "songs" listed on this recording, but there is one bright exception, which is the staggering "Shadow When Omitted."  Whatever one makes of Hayward's vocals, the performances on this nearly six-minute masterpiece of improvisation by Frith and Laswell are mindblowing.

Laswell spends the first part of the track playing with color and imbre on his playing, using devices common to his work, but as Frith develops a series of virtuoso solos employing his typical wide range of techniques and sounds, Laswell hits a couple of extended sequences of monstrous grooves that are just spectacular.

This, in turn, amplifies Frith's staggering playing, which, as much as he likes to experiment and use different techniques of picking and strumming, including the use of objects, there are solos that show him to be as fast and blistering, or more so, than any more popularly-known "guitar god." Of course, what sets Frith apart is his continuous spirit of experimentation, which is amply demonstrated on the rest of this album.

It is fair to characterize this album as a Frith showcase, though perhaps that has always been the case with Massacre's live and studio work.  This is not meant to downplay the work of Laswell, who is a maestro on an instrument not usually associated as a front-line one, or Hayward, who is an excellent drummer.  But, Frith is the centerpiece of this amazing ensemble and Love Me Tender, more than any of the trio's other releases, confirms this.

And, again, "Shadow When Omitted" is a stunning representation of what this great outfit can do and hopefully with continue to.

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