Review and photograph by Joel Reed
Just before Many Arms crashed into “Surface of Last Standing,” the first song of their set at the Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, someone who’d been enjoying the evening too much had a request: “Play Jimi! I love Jimi Hendrix! I know you can do it – ‘The Wind Cried Mary!'”
He was right – of course they could. Nick Millevoi (guitar), Johnny DeBlase (bass) and Ricardo Lagomasino (drums) have the chops to play anything, but in their own way. Saxophonist Colin Fisher, joining the group for this tour and on Suspended Definition, Many Arms’ latest release from John Zorn’s Tzadik label, responded that they’ll play all of Hendrix mashed-up, condensed and backwards.
Fisher’s response pointed to the combination of virtuosic and chaotic playing that characterized Many Arms’ set. Virtuosity doesn’t usually come up in the context of underground or experimental electric music, but in each of the three pieces they performed, all from Suspended Definition, Millevoi, DeBlase, and Lagomasino played with the speed, precision, and rhythmic complexity of a math rock band; at times, to maintain that level of precision, Millevoi referred to hand-written notes that seemed to chart the work’s pattern.
At other times precise math rock gave ground to free jazz explorations, where improvisation offered a noisy counterpoint to the meticulously counted and played sections of each song, though the band brought the same level of energy and concentration to both forms within each piece.
Ironically, I found myself thinking of Hendrix too during the show. Early in Century Plants’ opening set, the densely layered sound of Hendrix’s burning guitar came to mind. Eric Hardiman and Ray Hare, playing together in the ten-member noise collective Burnt Hills, and individually as Rambutan and Fossils From the Sun, are largely responsible for putting Nippertown on the underground / experimental music map. Their set though was much more than distortion and noise. Similar to the ways Sonic Youth sculpted song-forms from feedback, Hardiman and Hare, joined by Burnt Hills’ drummer Phil Donnelly, shaped and manipulated the fuzz wrung from their guitars by two dozen foot pedals and knob boxes.
Extended, abstract psychedelia is the métier of Burnt Hills, but at the Spotty Dog, Century Plants’ jam was more structured and accessible, with Hare and Hardiman working together to establish a rhythmic droning foundation before riffing and trading places between foreground and background. They mostly stuck to fast chords that kept the drone going, though occasionally the note-picking sound of a lead guitar would break through. Donnelly’s drumming kept fast time and at times drove the piece to its next section, while Hare’s not-quite comprehensible vocals, captured, processed and released by his boxes and pedals, echoed from within, creating an effect that would have scared me as a kid, but this time pulled me deeper into the space contained by the band’s fuzzy walls of sound.
[photo by Joel Reed: Century Plants at Spotty Dog. Left to right: Eric Hardiman, Phil Donnelly, Ray Hare.]