American Dollar Bill - Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On by Keiji Haino and SUMACRelease date: February 23, 2018
Label: Thrill Jockey Records
Supergroup SUMAC, who are already comprised of members of such hallowed groups as Botch and Russian Circles (Brian Cook), Mamiffer, Isis, and Old Man Gloom (Aaron Turner), Baptists (Nick Yacyshyn), and, occasionally live, Earth, Melvins, and Thrones (Joe Preston), have opted to join forces with shades-sporting, psychedelic and improvisational noise virtuoso, Keiji Haino for their third full length recording. If you’re unfamiliar, Haino is an enigmatic and formidable multi-instrumentalist whose varying approach has resulted in some of the most thought-provoking and electrifying experimental music of the past five decades. Stephen O’Malley (whom Haino collaborated with in Nazoranai) once tried to sneak into one of his sound checks but was barred from entry as Keiji was “spending an hour breathing in all of the oxygen in the room and processing it through his body and exhaling it into the room”. As O’Malley says “Occupying the space with your own organism? How poetic is that?!”
So does it sound like a man respiring for 60 minutes? No, not quite. The title track unfurls with percussive flutters and a playful flute. Guitars are dabbed as if by a cat hurriedly pawing after the frisky red dot of a laser pen. Drums explode like a firework display’s crescendo and vocals shift from gentle crooning to throat rasping cries. The tip tap of a hi-hat tells us this is improvised water testing yet the Baptists stick-man somehow manages to conjure and form rhythms that we can really lock into whilst guitars wail and surge off piste. Haino’s vocals, however, act like a rallying cry, spurring this on all together, all on board with the neck busting beat.
Often music paints pictures. It evokes feelings and images outside of itself. Sometimes bleak forest landscapes, or dingy cellars. This album sincerely delivers us to a darkened stage on which musicians wrestle with instruments and time signatures. Eyeing each other for signals, tempo changes, emerging crescendos. And leading the pack is Keiji Haino, breathily whispering sour nothings into a swaying microphone. At other times squealing solely for a canine audience. Guitars are reduced to little more than ambience and occasionally strummed discordance as KH exorcises like a priest with a satanic gym membership and a new year’s resolution that will NOT be broken this year. Everything calms down. A moment of contemplation and then “USA Dollar” is bellowed by the Japanese noisenik as inter-dimensional solos are wrangled from writhing guitar necks and fearless pickups. It all draws to a squall.
After this gentle introduction comes the first* of two pairs of tracks… split into two. Cleaved, scythed, bisected. With its wild and noisy tendrils this feels like dividing an unholy chimera forged from chaos and eager to devour its twin. In 1962 Francis Bacon seemingly foresaw these compositions as he painted a triptych which accurately represents the violent contortions that this union of Haino, Turner, Cook, and Yacyshyn muster. From out of this mess of rotting notes and flailing beats, some sense of structure surfaces. Colliding, clashing, and then, finally, complementing one another before rushing to a freak out finale in a, comparatively nifty, nine minutes. It’s practically restrained.
‘I’m Over 137% A Love Junkie And Still It’s Not Enough Pt.I’ is like waking in a desert. Parched and sand-swept. Seeking hydration in the early squinting light, trudging desperation starts to set in as the internal voice of panic gains confidence. This feeling is translated into accusatory sonics with a nervous atmosphere reaching out in all directions. Slogging drum fills and tickled crashes are occasionally warmed by the glow of receding guitar chords that sharply turn into fury and rage. This could be the score for Wake In Fright. The sounds soon die out in a scattering of toms and dive-bombing guitars.
The second half is convulsive and manic. All participants pummelling and shredding for their lives. Seeking understanding, trying to make sense of it all. The flurries wind down and this initial madness is gently coaxed into a softer, thoughtful mesh of plucked guitars and textural drums. A spattered mosaic backing Keiji’s pondering before pitching back into more volatile territory towards the end, linking right round to its earlier beginnings.
Part 2 of ‘What Have I Done…’ brings things to a close with guitars that soar like a shuttle called Icarus. The drummer appears to sprout four additional stick-wielding limbs that are everywhere at once. Only the bassist seems keen on maintaining a semblance of continuity, pinning down bursts of earthquake fodder. This carnage cannot be maintained forever though and so it slows down and quells. Only to be ruptured by machine gun drum rolls which act as a dying hurrah. Sonic winds haunt the background as feedback clatters into abrupt rhythms. It is deranged enough to derange. A lesson in endurance, in perseverance, in resistance. In these ways it is a lesson for our modern times.
* The succinctly titled ‘What Have I Done? (I Was Reeling In Something White and I Became Able To Do Anything I Made a Hole Imprisoned Time Within It Created Friction Stopped Listening To Warnings Ceased Fixing My Errors Made the Impossible Possible? Turned Sadness Into Joy) Pt. I’.
Side note – the tracks on this record have probably already won some award for “2018’s Song Titles of the Year”, but it is the name of the album (and also the opening track) that provokes the greatest intrigue. Is this a reference to the shameful slave ownership of George Washington? To the gross crimes of piggish capitalism? Or to the apparent refusal of the 45th president to be photographed head on, claiming that his best side is the only one that should be captured? Or is it none of these? Maybe it’s just that this quartet think that George Washington was a total munter. It’s a head-scratcher. It really is.