Prior to this show, Damo Suzuki and his backing band, Philadelphia’s Bardo Pond, have never even exchanged pleasantries, let alone played together. There is no rehearsal. No set scribbled down. No designated ending or encore. No ‘Point A to Point B’ type musical travail, just the here and now. Damo Suzuki calls it ‘instant composing.’ We might call it improvisation, or, if you live in a dorm room, jamming.
Suzuki knows a thing or two about avant-garde approaches. He was, after all, the front man of German legends Can for four seminal albums in the early ’70s. Bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit found the Japanese-born singer busking on the streets of Berlin and asked him to join the band after its initial singer, American Malcolm Mooney, returned to the US at the behest of his psychiatrist. Suzuki agreed and, as a pre-cursor to his current musical campaign, played with Can that very same night. He was just 17 years old.
25 Oct 2007: The Rotunda Philadelphia, PA
Over the course of Suzuki’s short tenure with Can (he was a member from 1970-1973), the band redefined several musical genres and left a lasting impression that continues to inform today’s musical maelstrom. But, following the 1973 release of Future Days, Suzuki left the band, became a Jehovah’s Witness, and retreated from music altogether. He resurfaced in 1983 and slowly started to perform again as Damo Suzuki’s Network, which is, all told, quite possibly the largest band in the world. Simply put, the ‘Network’ is Suzuki touring the world and performing live improvisational music with local musicians (or ‘sound carriers’, as he calls them). Some he has met before, many he hasn’t. It is estimated that the collaborations have incorporated 400-plus musicians worldwide.
Suzuki is 57 years old, yet looks 15, maybe even 20, years younger. He climbs onstage dressed in a black t-shirt emblazoned with the adage “Hear No Evil.” His hair is long and graying, and his beard, like that of many Japanese men who flirt with facial hair, is wispy. He’s hardly an overwhelming figure—more a thin, small, and rakish one—yet his voice, an imposing instrument, makes up for his diminutive stature. Over the course of the show it veers from transcendental chanting to robotic death-metal doom and, weirdly, for one five-minute period, a Japanese Morrissey impersonation.
The show starts off slowly as orchestrated feedback oscillates around the room. A flute floats in through the haze like a Viking ship parting the fog, and the eight-piece band—two guitars, bass, drums, harmonica, keyboards, flute, violin, and backing vocalists—build to a crescendo of sound that flat-lines into a driving, droning psychedelic jam. Suzuki sings above, neither carrying the tune nor leading it, instead utilizing the sonic platform for his own unique brand of improvisational poetry.
Trying to decipher Suzuki’s lyrics is a little like trying to decipher James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Both artists use a confounding sense of rhythmic cadence, their own distinct language, and off-kilter approaches to prose in an effort to get a feeling across. You have to listen (or in Joyce’s case, read) attentively to understand what’s being said. Then again, you also have to ask yourself, how much do they actually want to be understood? The only discernable lyrics I make out all evening are “you’ll see what you want.” Whatever is said, it’s very likely that an audience will never hear it again.
The drone has now turned into a full-on attack that vacillates from throbbing like a migraine to beating like a cocaine heart, with the only stipulation being that everyone plays at once. It’s a set-up that doesn’t really beg to be compared and contrasted, but different influences do spring to mind depending on which instrument takes the lead. A flute line brings back memories of early Mercury Rev. Several of the storm-in-heaven guitar shimmers feel like the Verve’s first album fed through a few more effects pedals. The harmonica brings about a bluesy element, dueling at times with Suzuki’s lyrics, lifting them both above the crowded sound and approximating what Robert Johnson would have sounded like if he really had sold his soul to the devil.
The only miscues come via some ill-advised female backing vocals and a two-note keyboard riff which stops after two bars, its owner suddenly aware of his faux pas. At times, though, as with any improvised piece of music, the musicians are out of step, but it’s only a toe outside the tracks, and they soon re-align themselves. The wall of sound dissolves into another dirge before exploding into a screed of feedback. Bardo Pond’s Michael Gibbons holds his guitar aloft against his speaker, tipping it back like a chalice, drinking in the sound.
When they hit a groove, it’s a wonderful groove. Occasionally, though, the composition drags. It’s not monotonous, just repetitive. A groove pushed too far or a note sustained too long. My girlfriend, who sits, leaning against a wall for the entire show, falls asleep several times—not out of boredom, but because the recurring nature of the riffs and the rumbling bottom end lulls her into a REM cycle.
Several times the drums stutter to a stop, like a hesitant horse before a jump, while the others keep on playing, propelling the band back into a psychedelic sea of sound. Suzuki spurs them on for a full 80 minutes of non-stop musical grind—one song, no breaks. If this were a gym instead of a gig, the band members would be in a spinning class.
Things get interesting as the band begins to break down, replacing the sonic bluster with a more textural approach. Bells rub against guitar strings and instruments play off each other as opposed to with each other. Alternating between discordant and sedate, the comedown sounds more improvisational than anything that came before. Even Suzuki’s singing is a little more unhinged. Bardo Pond slows down as, one by one, the musicians stop, curtailed by a hand gesture from the booking agent that tells them time is up. Damo Suzuki carries on, oblivious to the signal, and only stops when the last note puts its coat on and heads for the door. It’s obvious that he can keep going. And he does. Two hours later, he performs with a different Philadelphia band at a different location.