He’s been there for decades, Zelig-like, on the sidelines, in the shadows, often in a jumpsuit, helping to turn rock’s eccentrics into downright iconoclasts. Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads all went through artistic transformations with his axe-as-chainsaw heroics at their sides: he cut his teeth piloting improvisations into the eye of Zappa’s on-stage maelstrom, fragmented the tension of Bowie’s Lodger, and sauced up the gonzo rhythms of the Heads’ Remain in Light.
He’s Adrian Belew, the artist with no earthly frame of reference, the man who operates his guitar like a power tool made of Slinkies. When he’s not playing the surrealistic pop art foil to Robert Fripp’s mystical mathematician in King Crimson, Belew makes solo records, whimsical slices of bizarro-pop that are often as underappreciated as his contributions to rock music as a sideman. He hasn’t released a collection of new original material since 1997’s Op Zop Too Wah, but you wouldn’t know it by this year’s prolific output. While Ryan Adams may be getting all the press for releasing three albums in 2005, Belew’s doing it too: Side One bowed in January, followed by Side Two in July, and Side Three should hit shelves before the end of the year.
Where Side One offered a dynamic portrait of a self-proclaimed “power trio” (with Primus’ Les Claypool on bass and Tool’s Danny Carey on drums), Side Two is more experimental and muted, and also performed mostly by Belew alone. Where Side One had thorny pop hooks and thrilling chemistry, Side Two has a metallic, almost clinical, atmosphere. The rhythm tracks are built out of synth pads and drum samples, echoing out-of-body improvisations and weightless estimates of song structure. The songs all pulse with the same ominous hesitation that Belew injects into King Crimson’s material, a sensitivity that surrounds the music’s freedom with anxious skepticism.
It would all be a bit too detached and cold if not for Belew’s rubbery, spaztastic guitar aerobatics. When his guitar enters in the machinelike “Dead Dog on Asphalt”, it’s wound-up, excitable, nervous, looking to let off steam like an animal newly let free from its cage. Acoustic guitars serve as question marks in “I Wish I Knew”, its twitchy groove suspect and inhibited. Often, Belew’s guitar decorates the subdued synthetic textures with exaggerated pieces of punctuation, coiling around the beat in “Asleep” and sending rapid-fire ripples through “Quicksand”.
Lyrically, Belew is just as enigmatic as Side Two‘s music. In the liner notes, he explains that he wrote “terse haiku-like lyrics” for the record, “a break from the traditional form of verse chorus verse chorus”. It’s not so much a challenge for him as a songwriter as it is an opportunity to express his eccentricities in a simpler fashion. “One day you wake up / But you didn’t even know / You were asleep,” goes one of the record’s near-creepy meditations. Side Two isn’t going to usher in a new era of fame for Belew, and it may not be the most accessible starting point for Belew newbies (it almost feels like a headspace-cleaning intermission between One and the upcoming Three), but it still sounds like it could come from no one else. If Belew has to continue to exist on the outskirts of pop’s expansive territory to sound this original, so be it.