Launched in 1980 as a one-off experimental keyboard collaboration between two former Boston bandmates — Mission of Burma guitarist Roger Miller and producer/synthesist Erik Lindgren — the all-instrumental Birdsongs of the Mesozoic expanded to a real band with the addition of keyboardist Rick Scott and another Burmite, tape manipulator-turned-guitarist Martin Swope. The group (which described itself as “the world’s hardest rocking chamber music quartet”) remained a part-time sideline until Miller developed tinnitus and decided to continue his musical career at a lower volume, thus forcing an end to Burma. Often compared to new minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley — who do a lot with a little — Birdsongs seem to be doing a lot with more. And probably going right over the heads of many old Burma fans in the process.
The debut EP finds Birdsongs taking quite a different tack from Burma’s impassioned, chaotic noise-on-the-brink, with six instrumentals ranging from the achingly pretty romance of “The Orange Ocean” to juxtaposed chords played as much against as with each other. Magnetic Flip improves substantially on the first record’s flat production, allowing the band’s whole idea and execution to become bolder and more aggressive. The opening of “Shiny Golden Snakes” is pure rock power chording, while the variations on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” pile one thundering dissonance over another and the austere keyboard repetition starting off “Ptoccata” does recall Glass. (The loopy rendition of “Theme from Rocky and Bullwinkle” proves that the band’s highbrow inclinations are only one facet of its personality.)
The five songs on Beat of the Mesozoic take a generally less radical approach, allowing beauty to be a prime directive. Still, “Scenes from a…” layers taped voices and bells over the soothing piano cant; the title piece employs numerous types of sonic effects. The tense “Lost in the B-Zone” is the most unsettling track, a complex conflation of synthesizer lines going off in a half-dozen directions, with syncopated electronic percussion tripping over itself in the background. The CD-only Sonic Geology retrospective draws large portions from those three records, adding two new items to complete a rewarding 72-minute package.
Side One of Soundtracks consists of the Birdsongs’ improvised 1986 score for Michael Burlingame’s independent film, To a Random. With Lindgren on synth, Miller on piano, Scott on Farfisa and Swope on guitar, the quietly anxious piece lacks some of the group’s offbeat studio invention but maintains the usual standards of taste and musicianship. The rest of the album contains a witty Lindgren suite entitled “The Last 68 Million Years Summed Up in Less Than 13 Minutes” and “Flames in Trains,” his varied 1984 collaboration with two female vocalists.
With Miller off to a fulltime solo career, Birdsongs made its 1989 album without him, adding two hornmen (Ken Field and occasional past collaborator Steve Adams) to the Swope-Lindgren-Scott core. Faultline (composed individually by four of the musicians) runs the complete continuum from jazz to noise, delicate subtlety to unendurable wall-shaking chaos. Building up from the Birdsongs’ past, Faultline shows the group to be not only alive but well on its way to forging a new stylistic synthesis.
Recorded sporadically between 1975 and 1987, Lindgren’s Polar Yet Tropical contains an entire side of ’60s (loosely defined) covers. Showing moderate wit and maximum reverent enthusiasm — these are mid-tech garage renditions rather than smugly modern reinterpretations — he confronts such classics as “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Iron Man” and “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” armed with sophisticated keyboard instruments and occasional assistance by his bandmates. (“Out of Limits” is, in fact, played by Birdsongs.) The original keyboard instrumentals — colored by guest horns, reeds, strings, etc. — on the other side show Lindgren’s diverse compositional skills.