Poetry has a problem. Has always had a problem, maybe, but an especially pronounced one in the last couple of decades: it scares too many people away. This is not the fault of poetry itself, but its image. Reading a contemporary piece of poetry, free verse or otherwise, it’s too easy to imagine that there’s something you’re not “getting”, a vital piece of insider’s knowledge that would unlock the mysteries and perceived depths of the poem. If only you had it. But you don’t. Damn.
Listening to improviser/avant garde musician Ben Vida’s work as Bird Show, I feel the same kind of inferiority complex. How do I process this? What is it that I’m missing that would help me gain a better understanding of, say, “Always/Never Sleep Part #1”? Of course, the best of even the most difficult and experimental verse gives you everything you need to know to appreciate it. Accordingly, I tell myself that if I just relax and let go of my fears—that it’s okay that I don’t own the complete Captain Beefheart or Maryanne Amacher—then I need not be baffled by Vida’s poetry of drone and rhythm. Everything I need to know should already exist on Green Inferno. So how did I do?
My first mistake was expecting a “point” beyond the sounds themselves. Once you step outside the realm of storytelling, searching for a “point” is kind of a crapshoot. Read the “making of” on Kranky’s site to see that Green Inferno‘s ingredients include a dash of field recordings from Tokyo and Puerto Rico (courtesy of Atsuhiro Koizymi and Fred Lonberg-Holm, respectively), a base of everything from guitar and ambient vocals to mbira and qrareb (Moroccan castanets), and a few tablespoons of “rough edges and external noises.”
“All Afternoon Part #1” begins with a few tranquil moments of peeping frogs before exotic percussion and a Klaxxon-like undulating siren kick the door down. I was initially so put off by the noise that my mind began a frantic hunt for narrative sense. But my lame, half-formed explanations only pissed me off further (something about the destruction of the rainforest? blah!). I was grasping at straws. Only when I realized that there was no story to search for, no “point” I was missing, was I able to appreciate “All Afternoon” on its own terms. Throughout the record different tones and textures weave in and out, some pleasant, others abrasive. Where they intersect and collide makes it interesting or not, depending on your taste and patience.
Recorded at Vida’s Chicago home in the winter of 2003/04, Green Inferno does have a certain claustrophobic, cabin-feverish vibe of someone yearning to break out of the monotony of gray days in the Windy City. Inspired in part by warm weather sounds from Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, tracks like “Tracers” and “Always/Never Sleep Part #2” pulse and drone with organ, the clip-clop of qrareb, and whirring cicadas. “Morning/Evening” begins with what sounds like a string quartet warming up, which then melts away into hypnotic waves of noise. Most of the tracks are soothing compared to the opener’s spleen-tightening barrage. So if you can get past that, you’re in good shape.
Speaking of which, the aforementioned barrage does reappear at the end of the disc as part of “All Afternoon Part #1 (Dawn of the Dead)”. But here it’s given less prominence in the mix, bowing just slightly before the tropical rhythms that it used to dominate. And after all is said and done, it kind of grows on you anyway. Green Inferno most definitely falls into the category of “not for everyone”. It may not even be for me; at least, not all the time. But the best test I can give it is whether or not I want to return to the experience it offers. And like a poem I’m perplexed but nonetheless intrigued by, I know I will.