Strange Ethno-Improvisations from the Man Behind Old Time Relijun
Although best known for the wild, skewed Beefheart blues and Ubu-thrash of Old Time Relijun, Arrington de Dionyso has long harbored a passion for the even more out-there reaches of free improv. He’s known to put down traditional rock instruments and manipulate a bass clarinet, found percussion, and his own voice into bizarre sculptures of abrasive sound. There’s a bit of that tucked into OTR’s last record, 2012, in cuts like “Tundra”, but with Breath of Fire de Dionsyo focuses exclusively on these throat-singing-inspired, Ayler-referencing flights of free form fancy.
This album, recorded on Christmas Eve and Christmas of 2004 in southern Italy, is 100% de Dionyso, with no other musicians, overdubs, or electronic enhancements. The cuts are entirely organic, unbound by meter or key or any sort of melodic device, taking shape only from what occurs to de Dionyso moment by moment and what sort of contortions he can achieve with his throat and mouth. You hear him wailing like a muzzein at prayer on the opening “Emptiness and Void”, making barely altered voice sounds on “Breath of Fire” (in part, two, you can quite clearly hear him mutter “Oh fuck” through the vibrations of whatever he is doing to change the tone of his voice), and playing something called a Siberian khomuz, which sounds like a jaw harp. Though a few of the cuts incorporate western sounds like bass clarinet (“Solstice” and “The Lion Lays Down with the Lamb”), they are mostly aggressively strange and foreign-sounding. In “Raining”, the bass clarinet is pushed to its absolute lowest audible frequencies, fraying into blown wind at the bottom of its 17 second duration. “Balam”, equally short, makes the human voice just as disturbing, fracturing throat-sung tones into demonic menace. “Xibalba” is harsh and threatening, a monstrous vibration of vocal chords, hissing and growling and erosive.
The six “Khomuz” songs are the most interesting, incorporating the percussive boinging of this strange instrument. There’s a photo of de Dionyso kneeling on the floor, holding something that looks a bit like a metallic beer stein up to his lips, a long vibrating strip leading into a bell-shaped echo chamber—and this, I assume, is the khomuz. “Khomuz Voice One” and “Khomuz Voice Two” are perhaps the most overtly beautiful cuts on the disc, the wordless vocals stabbed through by dopplered shards of Khomuz sound. “Khomuz Traditional Variation,” one of the few tracks to incorporate anything like a beat, is quite appealing, too, as it merges this bouncy, mysterious sound into a ritual, dance-like tempo.
But finally, Breath of Fire is more interesting conceptually than it is fun to listen to. You can’t help but respect the energy and effort that went into this solo recording, or the willingness to go way, way out on a particularly outré musical limb. Still, you have the sense that de Dionyso is more interested in testing his limits—physically and musically—than in communicating anything to an audience. A little of this goes a long way.