As leader of Mission of Burma and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic — provocative groups that tested various musical possibilities from a progressive rock-derived context — Michigan native Roger Miller established himself as Boston’s preeminent new wave sonic experimenter in the ’80s. Beginning with the Maximum Electric Piano examinations of No Man Is Hurting Me‘s second side, his solo career has been equally exploratory. The five pieces (all instrumental, save for a dramatic reading of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky) apply Frippertronic tape-loop technique to a prepared (with things like clips, bolts and combs put on the strings) keyboard, generating fascinating ambient textures and pulsing rhythms from a single performance. The remainder of the album is formless and flakier, stretching from a delightful clarinet-damage rock rendition of the other Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” to haphazard kinetic noodling on assorted instruments.
The Big Industry ambitiously incorporates Maximum Electric Piano into vocal music, underpinning semi-melodic art-tunes like “Portrait of a Mechanical Dog” and an atonal free-for-all cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” with intriguing contrivances that blend noise (hammers, sampled egg beater, etc.) and music in a challenging tension of nice and rough. Occasionally off-putting, but more frequently impressive.
Miller’s home-brew album of guitar experiments, Oh. guitars, etc…, uses avant-garde compositional tricks, improvisation, conceptual gimmicks (like a nine-minute feedback symphony), tape manipulations (“The Fun World Reductions” is merely an old Burma recording run at extremely high speed) and noises. More irritating than significant, this is an audio scratch pad containing few worthwhile notes.
Continuing to treat albums as opportunities to package together two separate endeavors, and working his way through a series of independent record labels, Miller split Xylyl and a Woman in Half between an ensemble suite of seven pieces composed for a one-off performance in 1989 and a 33-minute solo score for a film directed by Michael Burlingame.
Win! Instantly! (recorded with chord bassist Russ Smith) productively returns Miller (aka No Man) to song form. Although Win! Instantly!‘s din can get awfully loud, clearly defined structures that allow plenty of room for Miller’s unique keyboard approach and strange percussion samples invigorate this fine record. Operating on numerous sonic levels at once, “Renegades,” “No Man’s Landing” and Burma’s “This Is Not a Photograph” resemble a collaboration between XTC and Test Dept. under the direction of Brian Eno.
The No Man (Miller alone on vocals and guitar, with sampled rhythm accompaniment) side of Damage the Enemy is wonderful, an energetic and well-sung set of textured rock tunes with crazy noises. The No Man’s Band (a keyboardless improv trio with Smith and a percussionist) side takes more listener effort, although the occasionally humorous pieces (the found-implement noises suggest Spike Jones rather than anyone more contemporary) are a far cry from the ear-pinning misery of other unplanned ensembles. And Miller’s trumpet work is a revelation.
Proceeding from the previous LP’s No Man efforts, Whamon Express is a surprisingly straightforward guitar-plus-keyboards rock/pop record with the usual sonic ephemera reduced to a mere industrial accent. Joined by a singing percussionist, Miller redoes “Red Ants IV” (from No Man Is Hurting Me) on guitar and the brief “You S.O.B.” (from Oh. guitars, etc…), covers Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” without incident and antes up nine good-to-great new originals, some of which could easily pass for Burma tunes.
Elemental Guitar and The Benevolent Disruptive Ray both focus on solo compositions (for, respectively, guitar and piano) and are experimental, personal works. Around this time, Miller’s other projects included assembling soundtrack music and, with the Alloy Orchestra, providing live accompaniment to classic silent films.
Binary System’s experimentation pits Miller, on various keyboard instruments, against percussionist Larry Dersch in a fierce and furious battle that, although technically jazz music, is at times closer to the spirit of Burma than anything Miller’s done since. Particularly intense is Invention Box‘s “The Sound of Music, Today,” a frenetic three-minute foray into atonal paranoia and schizophrenia.