Album Review: Ant-Bee – Electronic Church Muzik

[updated February 2011 — ed.]

Warning: not for the faint-hearted. Electronic Church Muzik, a new album slated for 2010 release NOW AVAILABLE HERE from Ant-Bee (aka Billy James) is another in the artist’s succession of relatively inaccessible masterworks.

This isn’t to suggest it’s not very good; merely to warn off casual listeners weaned on less-challenging mainstream rock. No, Ant-Bee’s guest musicians on this long player include no less than former members of Alice Cooper‘s original lineup; Gong; Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band; and most significantly, the original Mothers. And more besides.

“Living” — the original version of which appears on Alice Cooper’s 1969 album Pretties for You — here is eerily reminiscent of a track that will be familiar only to hardcore Pink Floyd fans: “Crumbling Land,” a song found on the soundtrack of Antonioni‘s Zabriskie Point soundtrack. The band — here including Michael Bruce on electric sitar and Bunk Gardner on sax — adds a loping 3/4 middle section and a distorted guitar figure, but the Floyd influence upon the arrangement is clear.

Not so on much of the rest of Electronic Church Muzik. Found sounds, vocal snippets and a wide assortment of “snorks” (an onomotopoeiac term referring to a horn mannerism familiar to Zappa-philes) place the album’s vibe squarely in 1969-era Mothers territory. Yet likening this disc to a collection of Uncle Meat outtakes does it a disservice: while these original tracks most definitely carry on the tradition of Zappa’s late-period original lineup, they are indeed original tunes.

With its musique concrète approach, “The Music of the Body” will be welcomed by fans of such immortal numbers as “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” Those who don’t dig that We’re Only in it for the Money cut might well be scared away from this one as well. So be it.

Zappa fans who’ve ever asked themselves, “What would Roxy and Elsewhere tunes like ‘Echinda’s Arf (of You)’ sound like if performed by the original lineup?” are advised to take a listen to Ant-Bee’s “Eyes of Agomoto.” The answer, in print: like this, and damn fine. Don Preston‘s keys and James’ percussion create something that’s adventurous yet accessible (well, accessible in a “Peaches en Regalia” sort of way).

Electronic Church Muzik does incorporate some elements that the sixties Mothers never did. Female vocals of the spooky, spacey sort (provided by Gong’s Gilli Smyth) add an eerie dimension (not a “Penis Dimension” at all, Zappa fans) that Zappa’s eventual use of the distaff voice (see: Bozzio, Dale) lacked.

“Mallard Flies Toward Heaven” is a front-porch jug-band outing, led by Zoot Horn Rollo on dobro. Zappa never did anything like this, and for that matter, Beefheart was rarely this tuneful (Magic Band member Rockette Morton plays bass on the track).

Real Mellotron (or an excellent sample thereof) is the centerpiece of “Flutter-Bye, Butter-Flye,” a track spotlighting Michael Bruce. The liner notes mentioned a character called Sun Raw (sic) on recorder. Hmm. James really does have some heavy friends. Peter Banks (Yes), Jan Akkerman (Focus), Moogy Klingman (Utopia) and Groucho Marx all make appearances on the disc. Okay, so that last one is present through the magic of magnetic tape, but then, isn’t that really true for all involved?

Banks is featured on “Endless Journey,” a dreamy piece not far removed from some of Todd Rundgren‘s instrumental excursions (think of the Healing suite). “The Light” is reconstructed choral music: bizarre yet fetching. One might not wish for a whole album like it, but its presence here shows the broad spectrum of James’ sonic palette.

Jan Akkerman’s lightning-fast acoustic guitar runs mesh well with James’ Mellotron to create a lovely instrumental duo in “Mannah.” Perhaps this album isn’t as inaccessible as the early tracks might have suggested. There’s an approach: scare off the pedestrian listeners early, and reward those who remain with a lovely album. It’s not an approach designed to shift millions of units, but then, anyone influenced by Zappa, Rundgren and Gong can’t really be all that focused on storming the charts.

A veritable suite of tracks kicks off with “Psalm 23” and leads through a number of wordless (or near-wordless) tracks that are more mood pieces than actual tunes. Snatches of musique concrète and found sound make appearances, and the Zappa influence is dialed back in favor of something more, well, akin to 19th- and 20th century church music.

There is an ersatz religious theme to many of the tracks, at least in their titles. “Psalm 23,” “The Light,” and “Benediction” all have titles that would lead an unsuspecting listener to think that Electronic Church Muzik is some sort of devotional disc. But if that’s true, the devotion is, ultimately, to avant-garde rock of the sort purveyed by the late Frank Zappa.

“Secrets of the Dead” heads to the middle east or north Africa for its vibe. A heavily treated guitar line has texture reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s “Tiny Demons” (again from Healing) but straight-ahead rock backing results in a more mainstream number. In fact, the presence of a former Alice Cooper band member on an Ant-Bee track (in this case the late Bruce Cameron) is a good indicator that said track will lean toward accessibility in some fashion.

A clip of Groucho Marx lightens the mood ever so briefly, but then things head back into bizarre churchly territory. Another suite of compositions incorporate some spooky sounds (crying babies, dropping bombs, machine gun fire, bees, etc.) to good effect. What the point is, exactly, isn’t immediately evident, — the connection between religion and war, perhaps? — but it’s certainly unsettling.

“The Lord’s Prayer” sounds like Head-era Monkees fronted by Stephen Hawking. After the brief “Angels” Electronic Church Muzik heads into its most mainstream track, a cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Don’t You Ever Listen” featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock on lead vocals. Ex-Rundgren bandmate (and frequent Rundgren detractor, as evidenced in quotes found throughout both of James’ books on Todd) Moogy Klingman plays keys. A mid-section answers another musical question: what would it have sounded like had Todd and Frank collaborated? (Note for trivia hounds: they were once co-billed for a show in the 70s, but it never took place.)

The disc wraps up with some more spooky sounds courtesy of Gong’s Gilli Smith and Daevid Allen. Significantly, despite James’ long list of guests on Electronic Church Muzikand the fact that he isn’t credited as a vocalist on the disc * — the overall tone is still very much his. He’s never overwhelmed musically by the (perhaps) bigger names, and that’s a testament to his musical vision.

The final track (“Final Benediction”) leaves the listener wondering if perhaps James’ latest disc might not be an anti-religion treatise after all. Either way, it’s intriguing, interesting music.

The first Ant-Bee album came out way back in 1990 on Bomp/Voxx; prior to that Billy James’ recording career included highlights such as playing drums on Steve Vai‘s debut Flex-able. Since that time James has built up a Rolodex of aforementioned heavy friends while writing about several. His books are interesting; his music, even more so.

At present James is seeking financing and/or a label deal to aid in the release of Electronic Church Muzik. Here’s hoping he finds it; The album is out now; for fans of any of the artists mentioned herein, this is an album worth hearing.

* Wrong on my part. Ant-Bee sings lead on “Living,” “Flutter-Bye, Butter-Flye” and “Secrets of the Dead.” All standout tracks.

Full disclosure: Billy James is a friend of mine. But that changes nothing, nor does it mitigate in any way the praise heaped on this disc. If I didn’t dig it, I could have easily skipped reviewing it. My inbox is quite full, and I have no shortage of material ripe for review. So there.

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I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.