On Second Thought
Borbetomagus - Sauter Dietrich Miller






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Every bit the monster that its name would imply, Borbetomagus have been tearing up venues and home stereo speaker cones alike for over two decades now. Though on a bit of a hiatus (I don’t think the group will ever truly disband) because Donald Miller has moved to New Orleans, the band is as loud and fierce today as it was in the early 80s. They’ve released a number of solo works, collaborations with artists such as Voice Crack, Thurston Moore, and the Nihilist Spasm Band, and even a record or two with a fourth member, but the real essence of Borbetomagus has always been the three man unit: Sauter, Dietrich, Miller. A powerhouse trio of two saxes (Sauter and Dietrich) heavy on the effects and and a guitar mostly of the tabletop variety (Miller), the band formed in 1978 and started putting out product shortly after. Sauter, Dietrich, Miller was the third of them and one of the strongest.

The disc consists of four brutal live tracks, one featuring collaborator (the previously mentioned fourth member) Brian Doherty on electronics, recorded in and around the NYC area in 1979 and 1981. Blasts of noise and wailing horns tear through a steady wall of feedback and crunch for slightly more than forty minutes. The first track, from Aimi Studio, is by far the longest taking up almost half the entire disc. And even though it both starts and ends shrill, the bulk of the performance is relatively mild compared with the rest of this disc. Still more than enough to freak out a college music professor or unsuspecting neighbor, though, and the pacing actually works well. It’s one of the few times I’ve heard the group lay back even the slightest bit and it’s amazing how well it actually works out. When the occasional burst does fly out, it seems all the more incredible by comparison. When Miller’s guitar really comes in at the very end, all three go for broke, nearly doubling the volume, and it’s close to perfect.

The other three tracks are all less than half the length of the Aimi piece, but do it right by sustaining the unforgiving aggression of that tracks ending for their full durations. The liner notes (by Kevin Whitehead) make reference to the bands intensity, saying that it is “...a drag race; they burn flat out until they’re done, then abruptly shut down.” This is close to the perfect analogy because the group literally does fire up and come to a complete stop in the blink of an eye. Complete unpredictability is always a major plus in the world of experimental music and on all four of these pieces, the group bewilders both listeners and audience members with not only volume and texture, but with insane stop-and-go improvising as well. Particularly interesting for its band/audience dynamic is the third track recorded at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. Not only does the crowd seem unmoved, but they are confused to a point of near-hostility. One excellent point, also noted in the liner notes, is when after about four minutes everything comes to a halt and one gent in the crowd offers up a partially-mocking, partially-confused-as-hell: “What was that, a tune-up?”

Having experienced this beastly trio live (and barely escaping with my ear canals still functioning), it’s amazing how well the band feeds off the energy in the room, and, as with any good live recording this makes its way onto the disc. No matter what that energy may be, the group manages to bundle it up and spit out ten-fold through their overdriven Peavey amps. If the crowd’s loving it, the band will bring it full blast; bemused, they increase the chaos factor and up the confusion; hostile, they get violently angry right back. Granted, the end result is all pretty much the same, but the guys use this to their full advantage (possibly even exploiting it at times) and when you have the audience to put in into context, the listen is so much more enjoyable.

Borbetomagus are a unique band. They lay their horns (and guitar) right in the middle of experimental music’s most bizarre crossroads. Equal parts free jazz, industrial, no-wave, and noise; no one sub-genre can truly lay claim to Borbetomagus. They are the Wire’s wet dream. With the exception of only a disc or two, I’d easily recommend the entire catalog to almost anyone even remotely interested in any challenging music. If nothing else, Sauter, Dietrich, Miller (and in fact, the band’s whole career) is an awesome example of how far one can go with minimum structure and maximum creativity. Do whatever you must to experience the magic. You won’t be sorry, but your ears might.


By: Mike Shiflet
Published on: 2003-09-05
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