Sun Ra/ Merzbow - Strange City [Cold Spring - 2016]Here we have a recent & fairly unusual collaboration between two big experimental names. Strange City brings together the work of cosmic themed & experimental jazz composer/ bandleader Sun Ra, with the sonic world of Japanese noise legend Merzbow. The unusual & fairly unique thing about this release, is that one of the two collaborators (Sun Ra), has been dead since 1993.
The collaboration is given a CD & vinyl release from respected noise/experimental label Cold Spring. It comes in three different forms: A vinyl release- either in black or yellow vinyl, and a CD….seemingly the vinyl & CD feature different tracks/ running orders. I’m reviewing the CD version of the release. The CD comes in a glossy six panel digipak- this features shape based, colourful & psychedelic artistic interpretations of both Sun-Ra & Merzbow’s faces.
The CD version of the album takes in two thirty plus minute tracks, and these mix together deformed & altered elements from two Sun Ra albums( 1967’s Strange String, and 1966’s The Magic City)- with noise elements from Merzbow.
Up first we have "Livid Sun Loop", and this comes in at the 32.11 minute mark. The first minute & a half of the track really fits the loop based title of the track, as it’s built around a looped horn sample & a chaotic blend searing ‘n’ swirling Merz-craft. But just when you think the tracks going to play out in a fairly safe & set loop based manner- the original loop disappears, & we move into a more shifting mesh of honking, wailing, weaving, and roasting Sun Ra avant jazz elements set against the ranging & full blast of Merzbow's noise craft. Though-out the track remains very full & busy in it’s attack; with more defined harmonic/ non- harmonic jazz elements blended with Merzbow cascading & sifting noise layers. Merzbow elements wise( as far as I can discern) we have a blend of: swirling, roasting & forking electronic noise, some kind of overloaded synth swoops, & cluttering junk/ percussive elements. At times things become more structured & shaped, but more often it’s just a searing & dense free fall. I guess the closet comparison is Borbetomagus, but with of course a more electronic leaning in the sound. In summing while the track is often a dense free-fall, there is enough rewarding & interesting shifts in both the jazz & noise elements to keep ones interest through-out.
So second up we have "Granular Jazz Part 2", and this is the longer of the two tracks at 34.03. The track opens up with a fading in forest of harmonic & unharmoic sound- this is built around:condensed backwards & forwards honks, dense mesh of cluttering junk metal, weird warbling elements- that’s all tied together with stitches of psychedelic weaving noise synth. As the track continues the dense weave of sounds seem to loosen somewhat, and you can make out more defined jazz horn elements & wider stretchers of psychedelic, yet squawking noise craft. By around the 7th minute I can make out subtle percussive jazz elements at the edge of the tracks mass, and these seem to become more firm & thick the further the track progresses on. As we also get a looser blend of: noise pitch shifts, wonky ‘n’ wavering tone stretchers, and more dense ‘n’ gurgling noise matter- all blended in with compressed avant jazz honks. By the 13th minute you get random cluster of jazz organ & speed-up horn elements, moving with the slowed noise billows & simmers. I’d say of the two tracks here this is my favourite, as there is loads of shifting yet highly rewarding layers here, which are often quite detailed.
When I first became aware of this collaboration, I’ll have to admit I was somewhat sceptical- wondering if it was just a gimmick, which would offer–up a miss-mash of ideas. Or just a cash in on both of these respected names, from different sides of the wider experimental genre. But I’ll have to admit I came away from Strange City, been both impressed & surprised…it really is a pity that Sun Ra has passed on, as I would have loved to have heard what else the pair could have done together. So one for those who enjoy the place where jazz & noise meets- I’m not sure if this will appeal to a Merzbow fan, who doesn’t at least enjoy a little bit of avant- jazz, as both tracks here are fairly rich with their jazz details.Roger Batty