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Fred Frith - Digital Wildlife CD (album) cover


Fred Frith


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4 stars Never mind the usual question of whether or not music like this is Progressive Rock: the larger issue might be whether or not it's music at all. The simple answer is yes, of course it is, but obviously not for neophytes or casual fans. If you've grown bored of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, if the RESIDENTS have outstayed their welcome, if even FRANK ZAPPA fails to challenge your world-weary ears anymore, where else can a student of outré musical arcana turn except to the avant-guitar noise of Fred Frith?

This 2002 album from his Maybe Monday quartet featured an unlikely combination of instruments: saxophone, cello, koto (a Japanese string instrument), and of course Frith's "treated" guitar, which often sounds like anything but. The music was recorded live in the studio on a two-track mixer, a bare- bones set-up to be sure, but affording the listener a thrilling immediacy rarely available outside an un- dubbed live performance.

And the title is certainly appropriate. Most of the songs (and I use the term only in its most generic sense) recall the final agony of animals suffering slow electrocution, adding up to 49-minutes of uneasy listening for only the most intrepid explorers. Overall, it's an eerie, unsettling collection of improvised noises, resolving itself only occasionally into an offhand alien groove or abstract ambient chill out.

Sometimes it isn't even clear which instrument is making what particular racket. But it's a safe bet the weirder digressions were generated by Frith himself, whose guitar technique (not unlike his compositional style) is unique and sometimes frightening. God only knows what he's doing to create these sounds: rubbing the strings of his guitar with sandpaper? Dropping fistfuls of cornflakes on the fret board?

There's a deliberate element of chance at play here, but it isn't entirely accidental. You've got to learn the rules before you can successfully break them, and Frith has been knocking conventional wisdom off its feet for almost four decades now as a professional musician.

Give this one time, and patience. What might at first sound like a free-form instrumental noise-fest will eventually become, among other things, the mechanized, almost industrial chatter of "The Prisoner's Dilemma" (with playful tape manipulation inflicting havoc on the tonal pitch), and the vaguely Oriental intensity of the koto-driven "Touch I Risk".

And a further benefit: when played loud enough, the album is guaranteed to clear any room of unwanted guests within sixty seconds. Now that's entertainment.

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Posted Sunday, April 6, 2008 | Review Permalink

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