Sun Ra / Merzbow - Strange City - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Sun Ra / Merzbow - Strange City

by Andy Brown Rating:6 Release Date:2016-10-29

You can’t really talk about noise without bringing up 59 year old Masami Akita, aka Merzbow. Merzbow is often labelled as the ‘grandfather of noise’  and has released hundreds of records, CD’s and tapes over the years as well as finding time to collaborate with a pleathora of open-minded musicians.

The last time I heard Merzbow was on the Rock Dream LP, a collaborative effort with Japanese psych-rock gods Boris. Here it all seemed to make sense, with Akita adding waves of feedback and distortion to the bands already heady stew. This is a markedly different experience from Strange City, a record that finds Merzbow remoulding a selection of rare and unreleased Sun Ra recordings.

Sun Ra passed away in 1993 but was a pioneer of experimental jazz and one of life’s true eccentrics. Frequently dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh and seeing himself as something of a conduit, Herman Poole Blount incorporated philosophy, science-fiction and mysticism into his work while claiming to be from Saturn. He also produced an absolutely astounding back-catalogue of strange, experimental and downright beautiful music.

On paper Strange City has all the makings of an incredible album but also one that is somewhat hard to imagine. While jazz is often about the ebb and flow of instrumentation, noise music is frequently harsh and overwhelming. While Boris and Merzbow could at least find common ground in their love of excess volume, would the free-flowing world of Sun Ra fit as comfortably into Akita’s vision?

The album is being released on CD and vinyl, with both formats containing completely different pieces. The CD edition begins with ‘Livid Sun Loop’, a 32 minute monster that pulls us straight into the albums harsh and brutally uncompromising world. You’ll probably make up your mind within the first few minutes if this is for you as there really isn’t a whole heap of variation over the tracks lengthy duration. This isn’t really a criticism considering the type of music we’re talking about here, more a warning for the faint-of-heart.

‘Granular Jazz Part 2’ makes up the CD’s flipside, an equally uncompromising dive into a world of distortion, electronic interference and strangled horns. It’s a discombobulating and undeniably challenging experience that may prove to be something of an endurance test for some. It certainly feels a million miles away from the recently released Sun Ra compilation, In the Orbit of Ra.

Unlike his collaborative work with Boris, Merzbow’s contributions seem to completely overwhelm the albums other components. Sun Ra’s distinctive space-jazz, at times, struggling to hold its head above the surface of the noise. Merzbow’s music leaves little breathing space and whether you’re more of a jazz fan or a noise enthusiast may ultimately dictate how much you get out of Strange City.

The vinyl edition contains ‘Granular Jazz’ parts 1, 3 and 4 and is no less of a challenge. Part 3 in particular displays the records confrontational and unrelenting approach, a 13 minute wind-tunnel of noise that will no doubt fill some with a mild sense of panic. For others the constant wall-of-noise (never has that term seemed more apt) may act as a strangely meditative piece, blocking out all external distractions with its overdriven and overbearing noise. Part 4 brings a little percussion and ups the jazz element, arguably making it the albums least abrasive piece. It’s still a clusterfuck of oscillations and head-spinning noise though.

Credit has to go to Cold Spring for making this album possible (and for dressing it up with such stunning artwork) but it’s hard to feel that Strange City isn’t a slightly missed opportunity. A coming together like this had the potential to create an album like no other, a jazz-noise hybrid that shook your hips and fried your mind before crushing your aching skull with a satisfying injection of noise. Yet while there are moments of transcendence to be had if you give Strange City the time, it ultimately feels like another noise album from a man responsible for hundreds.  

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