If you’re in the market for a brilliant postmodern guitar hero, you could do a whole lot worse than Henry Kaiser. This Bay Area diver/filmmaker/musician has appeared on more than 50 records since the early ’70s, ranging from total improvisations to jazz to experimental and progressive rock. While augmenting his flawless techniques with a wide array of electronic effects, Kaiser has familiarized himself with the ethnic musics of Southeast Asia, India and Japan, yet recently cited Jerry Garcia as a personal guitar fave.
Studio Solo and It’s a Wonderful Life are solo LPs that find Kaiser building dazzling architechtonic solos, from ghostly and ghastly textures to cartoonlike goofs to disjointed bluegrass, blues and jazz constructions. The key to Kaiser’s strategy is never to play the same thing twice, making his records and solos endlessly listenable.
Devil in the Drain adds a Synclavier to the mix, allowing Kaiser to record impossible lines and create otherworldly textures. The title track is built around a hilarious text by children’s writer Daniel Pinkwater.
Wailing in a power-trio format on Re-Marrying for Money (an expanded reissue of the German Marrying for Money), Kaiser is supported by brothers Hilary and John Hanes (the bassist and drummer, respectively, were once the rhythm section in Pearl Harbor and the Explosions), both subsequently of the Henry Kaiser Band. John Abercrombie, Bruce Anderson (of MX-80 Sound) and Glenn Phillips join them for a series of improvised electrified raveups (including Cream’s “I’m So Glad”).
Those Who Know History, which includes a side-long version of the Grateful Dead classic “Dark Star” (integrating other Dead hits) as well as “Ode to Billie Joe” and the theme from The Andy Griffith Show, is a return to Kaiser’s roots. But this record doesn’t hold a candle to the band’s live gigs. A particularly exceptional night (actually, two) is documented on Heart’s Desire, a program made up mainly of covers that stretch from the Band to Stockhausen. Bruce Anderson and original Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten help make this one of the greatest and hippest live bands you never heard. (The CD has fewer selections than the double album, but each contains some different renditions of the same songs.)
With Enemies Like These, Who Needs Friends? contains heretofore unreleased improvised live performances by Kaiser and former Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith, along with some gems from their two previous duo albums. The two plonk, bang and drone around on guitars, keyboards, violin and a particularly volatile (electronic) set of Linndrums. Equally loose and difficult are the duets with Russian Synclavierist Sergei Kuriokhin on Popular Science. Kaiser gooses the Synclavier himself on this disc, which is divided pretty equally into duets and solo excursions.
Kaiser revisits ’70s progressive rock on Crazy Backwards Alphabet, his not-entirely successful link-up with amazing drummer John French (formerly Drumbo of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band), the hockey-influenced Swedish drummer/vocalist Michael Maksymenko and ex-Dixie Dregs bassist Andy West. Gnarly instrumentals are unfortunately forced to share space with distracting vocals.
Live, Love, Larf & Loaf is a much more pleasant supergrouping in which Kaiser, French and Frith (on bass) are joined by British folk-rock guitar wiz Richard Thompson. The LP combines excellent post-Beefheart compositions by French with Thompson’s acid-etched Anglo-mysticism and a remarkable Okinawan pop song, “Hai Sai Oji-San.” This is eclecticism at its finest. Unfortunately, the second episode, Invisible Means, sounds incomplete, like a joke that doesn’t come off. (Although, considering the releasing label, perhaps it did.) Far from unlistenable, with the odd magnificent moment, the record is just spotty.