The Dark Magus casts a long shadow. The work of Miles Davis between 1969 and 1975 is a crucial subset of musical history. The respective genres of rock, jazz, soul and classical had all made some huge strides forward in the 1960s, from the studio experimentation of psychedelia to the glorious headrush of free jazz, from the social awareness of funk to the minimalism of Reich and Riley. But it was in the combination of these forms that the black magic happened. From Miles’s cauldron was scooped the spectral ambience of Eno favourite “He Loved Him Madly”, the deep dark throb of the Jack Johnson sessions, the spooked textures of Live Evil, and the tectonic eruptions of Agharta/Pangaea. There was an urbanity to the music, it was a walk through the melting pot of a multicultural city, with all its clashing noises and politics. But what set Miles apart from many of the alchemists who were creating new forms at the time (from Can to Coleman), was this air of malevolence which permeated so much of his music. If this was an urban vision, it felt uniquely dystopian.
Davis’s ideas took him so far beyond what jazz was understood to be that it is perhaps unsurprising that they only took root there in a limited sense. Much of the subsequent jazz fusion explosion, while heavily influenced by Miles’s work, ignored so many of its inconvenient subtleties. Elements such as the radical consciousness, or the minimalism, at odds with jazz’s more traditional values, were too often jettisoned in any future developments. But Miles’s live evil was running in parallel to the nascent emergence of forms such as heavy metal, with all its occult references, and the image of Miles playing keyboard on stage with the back of his hand was punk rock before punk rock existed (“You ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” indeed). Places with strong, extreme rock scenes were probably more receptive territories for this music.
The result has been these sporadic, musically and geographically isolated pockets of this Miles-influenced mutant malevolent minimalism. It didn’t land in Britain during punk, but it certainly did during post-punk, in the urbanised loops and clatter of This Heat and 23 Skidoo. Post-rock too, with its subversion of traditional instrumental roles, and foregrounding of texture. Scandinavia’s dark skies seem to have provided suitable cover: some of the forbidding structures around the Rune Grammofon label, in particular the Supersilent canon, could have been constructed with Miles as architect. Sunn O)))’s recent work overtly draws upon the jazz of the era, but it is Stephen O’Malley’s Aethenor project, which found room for keyboard drone and improv percussion, which really danced with this particular devil. Japan, probably the only place where Agharta and Pangaea have never been out of print, is another locus, with the likes of Acid Mothers Temple (who wear their influences, from Miles to Black Sabbath to Terry Riley, somewhat heavily) and Keiji Haino who, along with his Miles-like penchant for oversized sunglasses on stage, seems to play the Sonny Sharrock role in whichever ensemble he crops up. A little further south, the ghostly guitar explorations of Australia’s Oren Ambarchi are black dust blown from a similar mine; Ambarchi also crops up in collaborations with the Rune Grammofon mob (a new Fire! with Oren Ambarchi record is due soon) and with the pairing of Stephen O’Malley and Keiji Haino – a collision which surely (re)creates the Pangaea of this particular musical world.
Tetras are another transcontinental and transgenre trio, with roots in the LA and Dutch punk scenes, via percussionist Jason Kahn (formerly on SST) and keyboard player Jerome Viesser (who has accompanied The Ex on their trips to Ethiopia), while bassist Christian Weber has both played conservatory classical and in groups with the likes of Japan’s Otomo Yoshihide. When I first heard their new double LP Pareidolia, I thought they sounded a lot like the Australian minimalist improvising trio the Necks. Like the Necks, they deal in lengthy pieces which transform themselves slowly, with plenty of hypnotic repetition, and with the precise role of the instruments undefined (responsibility for melody, or rhythm, or texture, is pleasingly fluid). But Pareidolia is heavier and grittier than the Necks’ darkest, rawest moments, and the more I listened to it, the more I began to hear traces of many of the other sorcerers I’ve mentioned.
The opening organ drones of ‘Pareidolia i’ remind me of the queasy varispeed fluctuations of early This Heat, but when they later blow through like cold winds they bring the creeping menace of solo Deathprod. The use of percussion in ‘Pareidolia iii’ – melodic gamelan and brushes – in this context brings to mind Steve Noble’s work in Aethenor, steering a ship through the squall of white noise. When the drone becomes anchored to a relentlessly repetitive drum beat, building to a tribal pummel, it is of one with Oren Ambarchi’s epic ‘Knots’ from his recent Audience Of One record. That isn’t to say that any of these individuals have in any way influenced Tetras, but more that they are all drawing from the same river. Somehow, if you stare into these watery ripples, you can glimpse the face of Miles Davis like the pareidolia of the album’s title. He is there in those one note bass ostinatos, the back of the hand keyboard discordance, that dark ambience, and the bleak, dystopian feel. That mutant malevolent minimalism which sprang from Miles in the 1970s continues to flow through music, its strong undercurrent occasionally dragging some treasure up to the surface.