If you don’t think of jazz as a full-contact sport, you’ve obviously never spent any time in a room with the music of this durable upstate New York trio. “Punishing” doesn’t even begin to describe the loud, assaultive — and often earthily beautiful — sound the members coax from guitar and two saxophones, instruments that here seldom uphold their conventional identities, thanks to innovative use of tone splitting, harmonic distortion and out-and-out brute force.
Initially formed at the tail end of the ’70s — concurrent with, but not actually part of, New York’s no wave scene — Borbetomagus imbued its free-squealing with a vividly blue-collar style, evident in both the members’ biker-ish appearance and the sheer brawn with which Don Dietrich, Donald Miller and Jim Sauter handle their various “axes.” The first self-titled disc — on which the core trio is abetted by sine wave master Brian Doherty (his work is reminiscent of Allen Ravenstine’s more jagged essays in Pere Ubu) — holds the seeds of what would become the Borbeto style, most notably Miller’s jet-engine guitar roar, which occasionally wanes long enough to reveal him plucking strings like a mad harpist.
It wasn’t until the 1982 release that the sheer otherness of the group manifested itself fully. Early performances may have manipulated a fairly wide range of horrible noise, but this one set up stakes around a tiny patch of what would come to be sacrosanct ground for Borbetomagus. Improvising vertically rather than horizontally, there’s no release, only tension heaped upon tension. The three members scrape at each other’s sore spots and howl with raw fury when the scraping gets too close to the bone. There’s nothing remotely cyclical in these untitled improvisations-highlighted by a spatially disconcerting piece recorded before a clearly befuddled audience in Nyack, New York in early ’79 — which sets Borbetomagus’ new thing apart from even the radical blasts volleyed by Ornette Coleman et al. back in the day.
The 40-minute improvised piece that makes up Barbed Wire Maggots, while mottled with passages that are identifiable as jazz — notably a stretch of about five minutes in when Dietrich and Sauter trade fleet, squawking runs in the manner of Albert Ayler and Charles Tyler circa “Bells” — is as otherworldly in its power as anything the trio has ever produced. There are moments when Miller’s guitar re-creates the sound of a dentist’s drill in the mouth of a screaming patient — if the mic were attached to said patient’s tonsils. Draining in every conceivable way.
The double-album Zurich and New York Performances record a portion of the Borbetomagus live experience, but fail to capture the sheer density, the non-aural undertow that comes from immersion in the uncommon frequencies the trio tends to inhabit. The latter, recorded in three parts during the summer of 1986, is especially effective in establishing the band’s ability to build something other than a tsunami of sound. Seven Reasons for Tears, on which tape-manipulation expert Adam Nodelman guests, is one of Borbetomagus’ most insidious releases, underlaid as it is with a constant dream-state drone that lulls even while the players manifest the will to provoke. A real soul-tearer.
The trio shifts gears to a degree on Buncha Hair That Long, which maintains the apocalyptic petitioning tone in a format that’s considerably more discrete. Not only do the pieces have titles this time, the reedmen even make use of discernible phrasing: “Friendly Fire” practically ignites in a moment where the saxes, in unison, play what could pass for a baritone squonk variation on the coda from “Marquee Moon.” To top it all off, the live-at-CBGB version of “Blue Jay Way” could easily reunite the Beatles for good if it were played in the presence of the surviving trio. Live at In-Roads is a sonically pristine reissue of an early cassette-only release documenting one of the band’s confrontational New York shows.
Borbetomagus takes on an entirely different edge when locked in a room with Norbert Moslang and Andy Guhl (aka the Swiss electro-shock duo Voice Crack). Creating rhythms without percussion and sophisticated harmonics without chords per se, they wrest both philosophical manifestos and tribal primitivism from the randomly generated sizzle that permeates Fish That Sparkling Bubble. On the follow-up, the bent is more clearly cerebral, with Moslang and Guhl imparting a more scientific approach to the voltage-sapping entreaties contained herein.
The Shaking Coelcanth 10-inch incorporates the strangely Luddite electronics (mostly homemade patch synthesizers and radically deconstructed percussive devices) manipulated by Tennessee-based wiz Dennis Ray Levis, whose junkyard noise can also be sampled on albums released under the Shaking Ray Levis imprimatur. It’s an exquisite mix of over (amplified) and out (of their mind) elements. The earlier Industrial Strength is quite a bit less powerful, not because the onslaught is any less fierce, but because the three Borbeto men tend to allow the multitude of fellow travelers too much autonomy. The excessively diffuse nature of the hit-and-miss improv clusters attest to the necessity of keeping free combos as compact as possible.
Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore steps into — and almost fills — Miller’s shoes on Barefoot in the Head. Playing with percussive force, Moore sticks to underpinning “All Doors Look Alike” (which features some remarkable high-end blowing by one of the reedmen) and leans into a leering grind on “Concerning the Sun as a Cool Solid” with such glee one can actually infer some truth behind the liner — note assertion that he was begging to be “freed from the shackles of the Peggy Lee — descended dogshit” of his day job. Bells Together is a deceptively simple description of the Dietrich/Sauter album, long stretches of which consist of the two saxists placing the bells of their instruments together and blowing — a maneuver that seems to allow them to play each other’s very lungs as much as the instruments themselves.
Sauter has also played and recorded with the Blue Humans, an incendiary no-wave-cum-free-skronk outfit led by Ed Wood biographer Rudolph Grey, who can also count drummer Rashied Ali among his collaborators. Miller has provided jolts on several albums by drummer William Hooker (as well as the industro-trance group Lhasa Cement Plant). The guitarist’s solo album, A Little Treatise on Morals, is given over to more subtle uses of space than most of his work with the band. There are certainly outbursts where power electronics have their way (especially on the grinding “Deploration”) but, by and large, the textured string-play shows a kinder (if not necessarily gentler) side to the noise titan.