Published on 11th August 2019
Henry Kaiser / Anthony Pirog / Tracy Silverman / Jeff Sipe / Andy West – Five Times Surprise
The download version of this comes with a 40-minute bonus track! Jeez… anyway, we’ll get to that later.
Comparisons are pretty lame, and an easy cop-out for the amateur scribbler, but I have to say that on first listen, at eardrum-rattling volume (my better half is away at the moment), the fierce flurries of electric guitar and electric violin cascading out of the speakers at a great rate of knots during opening track Haboob, causing Kat to scuttle away with a look of “wtf?!” on her normally inscrutable feline features, the first thought that crossed my mind was “Hmmm… Mahavishnu Orchestra”. This was before I had read the supporting PR blurb, or even noticed that there’s a cover of You Know You Know on here.
Not that this coming together of five kindred spirits, guided by veteran sonic explorer Henry Kaiser, are a tribute band, oh no, but the transformative nature of the music, from meditative contemplation to a wall of sound that takes the listener on a journey to who knows where and back again, will be familiar to any fan of the first and best version of John McLaughlin’s unique brand of musical Zen.
The players on this solar wind-driven excursion, apart from the ultra-prolific Henry Kaiser, may be unfamiliar to you. Anthony Pirog, the other guitarist here, and a friend of Kaiser’s, is another unconventional stylist, but having heard his utterly different and far gentler contributions to other Cuneiform releases as part of Janel & Anthony, and on his solo album Palo Colorado Dream, what he contributes here is, to borrow the entirely appropriate last word of this collective’s name, something of a surprise! Admittedly one can hear the seeds sown on the solo album, which is well worth checking out.
Tracy Silverman I know little about and the bands mentioned on the press release are not names I’m familiar with. Suffice to say, he is a renowned fusion violinist and his contributions here are blistering. Appropriately enough, Kaiser met drummer Jeff Sipe backstage at a John McLaughlin 4th Dimension concert, where Sipe had been playing drums for the support act. His necessarily tough rhythmic playing keeps these stellar improvs from breaking free of gravity’s pull… just. Bassist Andy West was a founder member of Southern boogie outfit Dixie Dregs, whom, to square the circle, used to play Mahavishnu covers! Whodathunkit?!
Edited down from three hours of coruscating improvisations, the album kicks off with the bubbling ferocity of Haboob, nine-minutes of fury edited from twenty, and like the sandstorm it is named after, it swirls around with malicious intent. Played at ornament rattling volume, this tune will lift you out of your seat and deposit you unceremoniously somewhere over there. A marvellous start to the album, Sipe’s drums on this are nothing short of phenomenal.
You know You Know You Know, the Mahavishnu Orchestra tune, I take it? The collective’s cover of this tricksy little beast is on the money, a difficult job well done. Elsewhere, Why Starfish Why features a fast walking beat and some fabulous call-and-response guitar from Henry and Anthony, and is titled after Kaiser’s lifelong passion as a deep-sea scientific diver in the US Antarctica Program, something I didn’t know before reading the press release. Is that a day job or a hobby? Somehow, you assume musicians don’t have time for hobbies!
The album mixes long exploratory improvs that shift tempo and atmosphere on a dime with short and to-the-point tunes that sound scripted, and to the extent that cues were no doubt used to signal changes, probably were. This mix keeps the album from meandering too much, which can be a problem with recorded improvisations.
The track 24 Liars neatly sums up the band ethos, the title reflecting the number of strings in the group being plucked, bowed, fingered, and hit, then to be processed through myriad effects. An Oriental and lyrical beginning initiates a conversation between the violin and the bass, and we are lulled into a floating serenity that lasts for the whole 8:44 of the track, proving that the group can do sensitivity as well as they can belt out foot to the floor fusion. Very nice indeed!
Finally, there’s the small matter of the album-length bonus track, an excursion into the musical soul of each player, intuitively creating an unfolding vista of vast proportions. Suitably entitled Twilight of the Space Gods, it is a Kosmische journey, and a thing of rare beauty, and even in places, fragility, not a word that would otherwise sit easily with this spiky combo. Taking us on trip through a dying universe, it veers from energetic bursts to entropy and back again. Definitely one for the headphones, lights down low, in the company of your consciousness-altering substance of choice.
I will leave the last words to Henry Kaiser:
“I like playing with another guitar player. Partially because I can lay back into a support role and listen to Anthony, and we enjoy tossing the musical ball back and forth. Add the incredible electric six-string fiddle playing of Tracy to that, and it becomes a mirrored and time-warped fun-house that is full of surprises.” As for the entire group playing, he says that it’s something like science-fiction, where there are newly imagined musical rules and strategies of fresh musical experimentation. “And this is what provides the surprise,” he says.
If you have an inkling for improvisations played by technically dazzling players who intuitively know when to and when not to, this is an album you should investigate.
01. Haboob (10:02)
02. Slicer (6:58)
03. You Know You Know (7:02)
04. Earthshine (9:16)
05. My Brothers How’s (1:58)
06. 24 Liars (8:46)
07. A Realm Of Paradise (4:13)
08. Why Starfish Why (3:26)
09. Torch Shadows (8:10)
10. Maneki Neko (12:52)
Total Time – 70:46
~ Bonus Track:
11. Twilight of the Space Gods (40:21)
Henry Kaiser – 6-string Guitar
Anthony Pirog – 6-string Guitar
Tracy Silverman – 6-string Electric Violin
Jeff Sipe – Drums
Andy West – 6-string Bass