Last Exit, a four-piece avant-garde jazz supergroup, brought to their improvisations a fondness for volume and violence that makes most rock bands sound tame. In the late Sonny Sharrock, Last Exit boasted a guitar pioneer whose volcanic work in the ’60s New York free-jazz scene remains a profound influence on virtually every rock soloist who has experimented with noise, from Jimi Hendrix to Thurston Moore. In Germany’s Peter Brötzmann, it showcased perhaps the premier exponent of energy playing among modern saxophonists; his ferocity would later be echoed by the sheets-of-sound rock-trio recordings made by his son, guitarist Caspar Brötzmann. In Ronald Shannon Jackson, it had a drummer who combined the bluesiness of his Texas heritage with African polyrhythms and the take-no-prisoners approach of Ornette Coleman’s 1970s groups, of which Jackson was a vital member. And in Bill Laswell, it had a producer and organizer with close ties to the rock community, as well as a bassist capable of holding down the musical center in a musical maelstrom.
All but one of the Last Exit discs are live performances culled from the group’s formative tours in 1986 and ’87. On Last Exit, the sound is as unrelenting and incendiary as a blast-furnace, epitomized by the hyper-speed metal of “Enemy Within.” While blues riffs crop up as occasional reference points and an out-of-breath Jackson indulges in a bit of spoken-word whimsy on “Voice of a Skin Hanger,” the overall impression is one of supernatural intensity, the agitated instrumental voicings of Sharrock and Brötzmann suggesting human cries.
Although released late in the story, Köln was actually among the group’s first performances together, recorded four days before the 1986 Paris date documented on Last Exit. Sharrock has said he first met Jackson on the way to the group’s first concert a few days before, and the lack of rehearsal brings spontaneity, energy and a palpable tension to the group interaction. The nineteen minutes of “Hard School” are as harrowing as they are unrelenting, with Brötzmann, goaded by Jackson, coming out screaming and later inciting Sharrock to join in the carnage. The call-and-response patterns break down into a frenzied free-for-all in the aptly titled “Taking a Beating”; Brötzmann and Sharrock play hide and shriek in “Last Call.”
On The Noise of Trouble: Live in Tokyo, the restless quartet flies from traditional blues motifs to high-energy skronk and back again with dexterity and daring. “Panzer Be-Bop” is typical of the manic thrust, opening as a drum tour de force for Jackson, then mutating into a boogie, before Brötzmann blows everything into orbit. On “Blind Willie,” a nod to blues great Blind Willie Johnson, Brötzmann and Sharrock turn into heavyweights slugging each other silly, while Sharrock’s intro to “Pig Cheese” is enough to leave any guitar aficionado slack-jawed. The disc is also the only Last Exit release to feature outside musicians: pianist Herbie Hancock and reedman Akira Sakata. Cassette Recordings ’87 (also issued as From the Board) offers another tumultuous extended piece, “Line of Fire,” and disembowels Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” But it’s apparent that the group is nearing the end of its creative tether with the blow-your-brains-out approach.
Last Exit’s sole studio recording, Iron Path, introduces a less frantic direction, with more value placed on the space between notes. The compositions impose a thin veneer of structure: the recurring slide-guitar phrase in “Devil’s Rain,” the Oriental motif of the title track. Some of the more textured pieces at times suggest King Crimson at its most venturesome, while “Prayer” employs a majestic Sharrock riff for Jackson to scurry under, and “Cut and Run” hints at surf-metal.
Headfirst Into the Flames, culled from 1989 European dates, has a more refined sense of interplay. While cutthroat power is still very much part of the group’s repertoire, the emphasis is more on give-and-take. On “So Small, So Weak, This Bloody Sweat of Loving,” Sharrock sculpts feedback before a swaggering tempo is introduced by Jackson, a more successful “rock” excursion than anything on Iron Path. “A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” engages in evocative shadow play before erupting, and “Jesus! What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are” simmers rather than boils for all of its eleven minutes, a four-way conversation of the type rarely heard on the earlier albums.