Originally formed to back Daevid Allen when the erstwhile Gong leader first toured the US, Material began as a small core of New York-based musicians around which an endless string of interesting one-shot gigging and recording bands formed. Bassist/producer Bill Laswell alone continues to use the Material name, but the original triumvirate with Michael Beinhorn (synthesizer, tapes, vocals) and Fred Maher (drums) made a virtue of eclecticism, effectively blending funk, rock, experimentalism and jazz into a subtle, credible fusion music all their own.
Not that they managed it right away. Temporary Music 1, four songs produced by Giorgio Gomelsky, shows a promising progressive-rock band toying with funk and quickly miring itself in extraneous noise. But the funk-rock fusion takes hold on the sequel, as Stockhausen (figuratively) meets Moroder, and that approach didn’t let them down thereafter. The Temporary Music album reissues the two EPs on one disc, as does Red Tracks.
American Songs, which features an intriguing appearance by guitarist Robert Quine on two new items, is just interesting enough not to be expendable.
Memory Serves is Material’s most jazz-tinged album, with its complement of prominent jazz players on cut after relentless cut. Guitarist Fred Frith is also featured, starting an intermittently ongoing alliance. The procession of textures is dazzling, the funk cuts like a knife and the hornwork is disciplined within tight structures. As “black” classical and dance music refined with a rock sensibility, Memory Serves is a highly original crossover.
One Down extends the experiment to urban pop music with almost equal success, aided by Nile Rodgers, Nona Hendryx, Frith, Oliver Lake and many others. However, it lacks the edge of Memory Serves, and Maher’s departure is probably the reason. Saxophonist Archie Shepp, black-power spokesman and angry young man of ’60s jazz, puts in a politically interesting but musically low-key appearance on Hugh Hopper’s “Memories.”
In 1982, Laswell, Maher and Frith combined as Massacre, a radical power trio. The distinctively skewed melodies of Killing Time‘s composed half — mostly on the first side, a brilliant procession of techniques and ideas — bear the Frith hallmark. Propelled by the virtuoso rhythm section, Frith plays with unprecedented urgency — no cold cerebration here. The improvisations are tough and sinewy too, benefiting from Frith’s experience in Henry Cow. Highlights: the bouncy title cut and “Corridor,” a manic exercise in machine-gun feedback.
By the late ’80s, with Beinhorn and Maher long gone (both to producing, although Maher plays with Scritti Politti and has drummed on plenty of records, most memorably Lou Reed’s New York), there was no longer any discernible difference between Material and Laswell solo. Still, after the commercial failure of Laswell’s not-new-age-but-an-incredible-simulation Hear No Evil (which probably flopped because it betrayed more active intelligence than its target audience wants to know about), he adopted the Material name for Seven Souls, a great record that’s as much a masterpiece of sheer calculation as it is art. (Laswell is nothing if not an extremely canny operator.)
Having worked with William S. Burroughs on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak, Laswell here has the author read from his novel The Western Lands over tracks that span a wide area of world music turf, mixed with licks and samples deployed with Laswell’s usual taste, innovation and economy. The percussion, courtesy of Sly Dunbar and A‹yb Dieng, is consistently brilliant. At times the music is restive, creating very delicate atmospheres; Burroughs’ voice and text add appropriate notes of doom. That aside, Seven Souls is clearly designed to be new age music for hipsters.
Around the same time as Seven Souls, guitarist Skopelitis — a longtime Laswell crony who has joined the bassist on most of the projects he’s undertaken since 1982, including all of the Golden Palominos records — released his first solo LP, Next to Nothing. With Laswell, Ginger Baker (drums), Fred Frith (violin), Simon Shaheen (violin, oud) and Dieng (percussion), it’s similar in texture to Seven Souls, albeit without the spoken-word content. Along with that record and Baker’s excellent, Laswell-produced Middle Passage, Next to Nothing forms something of a triptych, and an exemplary one at that.