Album Review: Ant-Bee — Pure Electric Honey

Though it far too often is the case, avant garde music need not be chilly and foreboding. Sometimes it can be warm and inviting, while still maintaining its outré, weird-and-wonderful characteristics. That’s the case with Pure Electric Honey, the 1988 debut album from Ant-Bee, reissued on CD in 2013.

Pure Electric Honey certainly bears few sonic hallmarks of the late 1980s. Some sonic touchstones include Frank Zappa‘s late-sixties music; the legendary SMiLE sessions from Brian Wilson; and (relatively) more modern artists such as The Residents and – most notably, I think – Elephant 6 Collective artists Olivia Tremor Control. Now, Ant-Bee (essentially Billy James and a large cast of other musicians) recorded Pure Electric Honey long before OTC cut their debut long player Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, but the two acts are clearly kindred spirits, even if they arrive at sonically related destinations via different pathways.

The willfully playful and obscure liner notes on the 2013 reissue of Pure Electric Honey offer little in the way of actual information about the genesis of these recordings. What little we know is gained through listening to the music itself. From the opener (“Intro”), it’s clear that Ant-Bee is concocting a sonic stew that mixes equal parts Beach Boys “Our Prayer” with the studio trickery of inside-the-piano found sounds of Lumpy Gravy.

But while “My Cat” might initially feature backwards tapes of a bagpipe, with ghostly vocals smeared atop them, when the song launches into its “rock” section, the result is closer to a pop reinvention of The Residents, with a bit of spooky Third-era Big Star thrown in. Later in the track, gonzo/atonal guitar work takes center stage. The thrilling “Evolution #7” is reminiscent of some of the more musically exciting parts of The Who‘s Tommy, with bonus of some snappy electric sitar and dollops of creamy vocal overdubs.

Beats fade in and out of the mix. Though James is primarily a drummer/percussionist, the tracks on Pure Electric Honey are by no means drum-centric. Using the studio as an instrument, James’ cut-up approach sounds like the result of recording many sessions, cutting the fruits of those sessions into into very small bite-size chunks, tossing them on the floor, and then carefully reassembling them into something entirely different. But that assembly is by no means haphazard; the dream-like texture of Pure Electric Honey is carefully arrived at by its creator.

During “Black and White Cat, Black & White Cake,” a snippet of a straight-ahead pop song fades in briefly. But then it’s gone, leaving behind a murky, echo-laden slab of musique concrète. And so it goes throughout Pure Electric Honey. Those looking for a toe-tapping good time are urged to look away from this record: it won’t please you. But those who appreciate the unusual – especially the sort of unusual that is pop-based and not at all pretentious – are strongly nudged in the direction of Pure Electric Honey.

Garage/psych enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that the original (vinyl) release of this album was on Greg Shaw‘s VOXX label. The sounds on Pure Electric Honey might at first blush seem to be outside Shaw’s area of interest, but a clear love (and understanding) of the sweet spot at which psychedelia, pop and the avant garde all intersect is a hallmark of this album. In that light it’s less surprising that Shaw would have appreciated it.

Oh: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this as well. If you investigate Pure Electric Honey and wish to delve further into its brand of madness, I would also recommend a much later Ant-Bee work called Electronic Church Muzik. It features a number of “name” artists assisting James in his bizarre musical goals, but it’s even more out-there than the Ant-Bee debut.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.