Americans Bon Lozaga (guitar) and Hansford Rowe (bass) and Frenchman Benoit Moerlen (vibes, xylophone) formed the nucleus of the fusion band Gongzilla in the mid 1990s, and recorded the studio CDs Suffer and Thrive with guest guitarists Allan Holdsworth and David Torn. The 2001 Gongzilla release Live was recorded direct to 2-track at a festival in Quebec City, Canada, on June 27, 1998, with drummer Vic Stevens, who played on the Gongzilla debut CD Suffer. In the Gongzilla tradition of innovative guest guitarists, this show also featured NYC guitarist and composer David Fiuczynski, who previously played with Stevens on a record by his band Mistaken Identity.
Live contains seven instrumental tracks, each written by one of the three core Gongzilla members. The languid fusion grooves move through gradual developments and solos by guitar and vibes/xylo, but with little melodic content like the repeated head of "Bad Habits." The opening track, "Mr. Sinister Minister," builds effectively through a sparse, clean groove into a solo section, "Hip-Hopnosis" moves from a bouncy verse to a smooth chorus, and "Image" builds a light funk groove through the only long development on the record. All of these songs are solidly played, but none of them ring truly memorable in the writing or playing. The heavy, rock guitar riffing in "Gongzilla's Dilemma" and "Gongzilla" feels out of place for a fusion band, especially with Lozaga's dripping wet fusion guitar sound and the vibe/xylo sounds of Moerlen. Gongzilla's attempts at metal-fusion crossover sound like jazz cats trying to rock, rather than like an authentic blend of heavy rock and fusion by musicians who can truly feel both styles.
Over unobtrusive drumming and bass, Lozaga drags down the first three tracks and the last two with gratuitous guitar soloing that detracts from the sparse melodic content of the arrangements. Lozaga's leads have little original sound or spark to distinguish his thick toned, tremolo bar laced work from scores of other post-Holdsworth fusion guitarists. In contrast, Fiuczynski's trademark atonal, sliding fretless guitar solos in "Gongzilla" and "Soli" ring with his unique and inventive sound and feel. The two guitarists often play the same melody lines in unison, like the opening to "Gongzilla," which gives these guitar melodies a pleasantly dissonant but massively fat sound.
But just as Fuze starts to improvise a groove on the rhythm in "Gongzilla" after his solo, Live commits the cardinal sin of any live album – the song fades out while the band is still jamming, after less than four and a half minutes of the song. Live is only 43 minutes long, so CD length can't have been the problem. Hopefully some catastrophe struck, like the tape breaking, or the sound system exploding, or someone being abducted by a flying saucer, because there really isn't any other excuse for fading out a track on a record of live fusion, a genre where live playing should be prized.
Although full of talented fusion musicians, the music and playing on Gongzilla Live never fully engages or excites, coming closest in the building grooves of "Mr. Sinister Minister" and "Image," and when David Fiuczynski starts to wail.