Fred Frith: From Metal Head To Space Cowboy

Mark Corroto By

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It is impossible to pigeonhole the music of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith. His early work with Henry Cow and Art Bears asked to be collected in the prog-rock bin, yet its improvising nature signaled the avant-garde. Later he was to be a member of Skeleton Crew with Tom Cora and Zeena Parkins, Curlew, Bill Laswell's Material and John Zorn's Naked City.

Frith has written music for dance, film (Step Across The Border), theater and for his sextet Keep The Dog. His long list of collaborations includes The Residents, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Christian Marclay, Alvin Curran, Anthony Braxton and Brian Eno. He teaches composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. Two very dissimilar recent releases are examined below.

Lonely Heart


The rock-improv band Massacre was formed in 1980 by bassist Bill Laswell, founder of the funk/post-punk group Material, drummer Charles Hayward, from This Heat, and Frith. It was a jamband before anyone had thought of the term.

This disc was recorded live (the only way to capture the band) in 2003 in Paris and Denmark, when it was the opening act for Metallica. Playing for 10,000 metal fans certainly added to the energy here. The disc follows Funny Valentine (Tzadik, 1998) and Meltdown (Tzadik, 2001). Frith is freed up—maybe "unleashed" is a better description. He applies the noise, the power guitar lines, tossing rock clichés onto Derek Bailey quotations. Yes, this is one of the loudest records you'll hear this year.

Why this works for the adventurous jazz fan is the creativity displayed. Laswell and Hayward change rhythms and styles often throughout the multi-paced 20 minute opener. It isn't until the almost non-violent closing track that things cool off.

Death Ambient
Drunken Forest

The ethereal certainly is the theme for the trio known as Death Ambient, in which Frith joins electronicist Ikue Mori and multi-instrumentalists Kato Hideki and guest performer Jim Pugliese. Mori first gained attention with the New York downtown post-punk band DNA (with Arto Lindsay), and more recently, as her drumming morphed into sampling, she has been a major player in John Zorn's New Japan music series. This disc, as well as the band's eponymous 1995 debut, was produced by Kato Hideki, the former bassist with Ground Zero. The liner notes indicate the recording was six years in the making.

Frith plays the dutiful role as effects generator. Tossing eerie sounds here, and smudges of feedback there, he lays out a backdrop of electric for this (you have to believe) studio-created collage. Like Synaesthesia (Tzadik, 1999), this updated version of ambient music eschews pastoral (read "sleepy ) landscapes for a more interesting and picturesque vista. Hideki's various instruments (acoustic guitar, violin, banjo, mandolin, accordion and ukelele) are sprinkled about without distracting from the whole. Each of the eleven tracks acts as a short story, but each is seemingly about the same thing. The acoustic instruments, along with some water sounds, suggest a soundtrack to a spaghetti western made without cowboys in a large futuristic metropolis.

Tracks and Personnel

Lonely Heart

Tracks: Send; Step; In; Gracias A La Vida; Return.

Personnel: Fred Frith: electric guitar; Bill Laswell: electric bass; Charles Hatward: drums, melodica.

Drunken Forest

Tracks: Lake Chad; Greenhouse; Belarus; A Cocktail Of Thermohaline; Dead Zone; Qianwei Sky; Yellow Rain; River Tigris; Drunken Forest; Coral Necropolis.

Personnel: Fred Frith: electric guitar; Ikue Mori: laptop computer; Kato Hideki: acoustic bass, electric bass, acoustic guitar, analog synthesizer, violin, banjo, mandolin, accordion, ukelele, electric guitar, lap steel guitar, vocals, soprano recorder, alto recorder, glasses, ice and water; Jim Pugliese: percussion, trumpet, mbira.


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