In a past century, Martin Bisi was best known as a producer with a list of iconic albums – most notably Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation – to his credit. Fast forward to 2014 and Bisi finds himself touring Europe and probably better known to this generation as a solo artist and bandleader, the purveyor of a distinctive New York brand of surrealistically menacing, psychedelic, melodic art-rock. His new album Ex Nihilo (Latin for “from nothing,” due out April 1) is a throwback to the raw, chaos-embracing, adventurous experimentation of albums like 1988’s Creole Mass. There’s plenty of Bisi’s signature savage erudition, literary and mythological references, and archetypes from across the centuries, scattered throughout these songs like bodies across a battlefield. And while there’s also plenty of bleakness and a relentless cynicism here (you just have to love the title of the concluding cut, Holy Threesome), Bisi’s irrepressible, sardonic wit glimmers amidst the chaos and desolation. He’s playing the album release show on April 15 at around 8 at Glasslands; cover is $12.
Contrasts abound here: Bisi’s cool, matter-of-fact, often half-spoken vocal delivery in the center of a whirlwind of overdubs, dead-girl choirs courtesy of chanteuse Amanda White’s epic multitracks, vocal samples, and vertigo-inducing orchestration. Likewise, Bisi’s guitar slashes and clangs, but with a purposefulness and tunefulness (Syd Barrett often comes to mind) that’s the one constant within what’s often a vortex of sound, most of it played by Bisi himself through a maze of reverb, delay and loop effects. This succinctness makes the sprawl around it all the more disquieting. Billy Atwell’s counterintuitive but propulsive drumming adds extra spice. .
The opening track, Nihil Holy begins as a cloudbank of nebulous, disembodied voices joined by muted, gritty electric guitar, drums and tumbles of keyboards, an acidic kaleidoscope of sound that sets the stage for the rest of the album. Eventually, the voices drop out and a starlit soundscape emerges. Bisi segues into the wickedly catchy 80s-style new wave goth anthem Sin Love Hate, with its massive, operatic choral arrangement and an unexpected free jazz free-for-all fueled by guests the Stumbebum Brass Band before it all comes together at the end. “I run around with animals,” Bisi intones sarcastically, “I pull their ears and pinch their tails.”
The Mermaid Queen, a duet with White, reminds of the Black Angels at their darkest and most focused, its slow, swaying Blue Jay Way-on-opium verse giving way to a catchy, early Pink Floyd-ish chorus, the backing vocals evoking a big gospel choir while the drums roll, the verses rise and an endless parade of devious psychedelic effects wafts and flits through the mix.The eight-minute Invite to Heaven Hell builds a stygian spacerock ambience, like the Chuch (or, for that matter, the Byrds) at their most psychedelic, with hints of peak-era Sonic Youth peeking through the pulsing guitars, disembodied vocals, soaring trumpet and that dead-girl chorus again. It’s one of the most deliciously tuneful things Bisi has ever done.
Suffer the Moon, another big epic, also evokes the Black Angels, but with a more grim, dramatic focus, cartwheeling drums paired off against the otherworldly choir, jaggedly tuneful guitars, rising and falling dynamics and a very devious melodic quote at the end. Fine Line finds Bisi and guest drummer Brian Viglione having fun with tempo changes that eventually coalesce into a murky post-Velvets groove, a snidely goth-tinged anthem about a girl who seems just a little too eager for her own good…or, for that matter, yours. The concluding cut is the album’s noisiest yet also quietest one: echoes of Pink Floyd (yeah, that’s a pun), the Church, the Velvets and the Beatles’ Revolution 9 swirl and overlap and obliterate each other in turn as the maelstrom spins, Bisi throwing a characteristically LOL ditsy vocal sample into the mix for extra sardonic bite. That’s a nuts-and-bolts look at what’s going on here: obviously, there are so many layers that it takes a lot of listening to figure what else is happening, if in fact such a thing is possible. More twistedly ornate aural junkyard sculpture – like a sonic version of the old Gas Station on Ave. B – than surrealistic pillow, it’s one of the most flat-out intriguing albums of the year. Bisi plays the album release show at around 8 at Glasslands on April 15; cover is $12.