A re-release such as this provides an opportunity to stand back, draw breath, and reassess. Many listeners may still remember the combination of shock and adrenalin-induced thrill you got when you first heard Last Exit. You may now also be shocked to learn that the group's debut was some twenty years ago. Koln features the foursome's recorded debut, captured on February 12, 1986 (four days before the tracks on Last Exit, the group's first release).
Some fans will give you the conventional wisdom that Last Exit combined rock rhythms with the energy and intensity of freely improvised blowing into a wall of noise that changed improvised music forever. In fact, that's an oversimplification. In its personnel, Last Exit was a "supergroup" (ugh!) that combined Bill Laswell's rock/funk/dub aesthetic with Shannon Jackson's free jazz to produce a powerhouse rhythm section over which Sonny Sharrock and Peter Brötzmann ripped and roared. Although the music was totally improvised, Laswell and Jackson were the kind of rhythm section that had never been heard in improv.
In fact, Last Exit almost had a split personality, depending on whether or not Brötzmann was playing. For overwhelming evidence, listen to "Hard School" (the titles were well chosen; they eloquently convey the group ethoshard school, indeed). Some ten minutes into the performance, the trio of Laswell, Jackson, and Sharrock hits a groove and sticks with it, effortlessly producing improv you can dance to. The re-entrance of Brötzmann shatters that groove as he blows with characteristic energy and abandon, seemingly oblivious to the others. The same thing happens again on "Last Call."
Whenever Brötzmann plays, the archetypal Last Exit emerges, purveyors of full-on high energy noise guaranteed to scare the children. But these passages alternate with trio passages that act as a form of respite and are more subdued and lyrical. Sometimes, Brötzmann's entrance can feel intrusive, even destructive, so overwhelming is his presence and so dominant his playing; he never attempts to adapt to the trio, he just blows the others away.
It is incredible to think that these recordings were made some twenty years ago; this music has a timeless quality and its influence has been immense in the decades since it was recorded, on groups like Napalm Death, Naked City, Aufgehoben No Process, and others.
Last Exit remains as in your face and impossible to ignore as ever.