[24 March 2009]
There’s a long, peculiar tradition of what you might call the “brother from another planet”—African-American artists who go beyond the mere embrace of weirdness and eccentricity to a place where the only logical explanation is to believe they’re simply wired that way from birth. Sun Ra and George Clinton are two high-profile examples of this archetype. Depending on how strictly you define it, you could even extend it to include people like Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Andre 3000, and Madlib. While the concept is ripe with metaphor, it’s also no coincidence that some of these artists are responsible for some of the most iconoclastic music of the past 50 years.
Richard Simms might not be an innovator on the level of those artists, but he certainly fits into the same continuum. Working in early/mid-1980s Washington, DC under the alias Wicked Witch, Simms released a handful of singles on the presumably self-financed Infinity Records, which are collected in this compilation from the highly respected Japanese reissue label Em. (Judging from the dates given, this is not the same Infinity label that was home to Rupert Holmes and Spyro Gyra before folding back in to its parent company MCA in 1979.) Simms is a mysterious cat, to be sure—research turns up little more than already published reviews of this same collection—a sense only furthered by the Rick James meets Gene Simmons visage leering from the cover of the appropriately titled Chaos: 1978-86.
Musically, the majority of the disc consists of material from a 12-inch and two 7-inch singles, six tracks total, with Simms performing all instrumental and vocal parts, except for some additional synthesizer and voice on “Erratic Behaviour” and “X Rated”. All of these pieces bear a heavy P-Funk influence, whether in the primitive guitar shredding on “Fancy Dancer” or the Bootsy-like vocal exhortations of “You ain’t cool!” interjected throughout “Erratic Behaviour”. The only unfortunate difference in Simms’ music is the near-total lack of discernable song structure. Where Parliament tempered even its most extended tracks with melodic hooks, Simms’ overall approach is little more than loopy jams with layers of stream-of-consciousness vocals that float just above and below the meniscus of the mix.
One notable exception is the lone group performance, “Vera’s Back”, recorded in 1978 and credited to a Simms-led ensemble called Paradiagm. The entire sextet shows off some serious fusion chops over the course of 12 minutes, moving in and out of tight unison lines for violin, bass, guitar, and synthesizer like an Afrocentric Mahavishnu Orchestra. Simms’ vocal ramblings also play a more pivotal role than on the disc’s other tracks, providing vital (though still relatively nonsensical) bookends to the long instrumental sections.
But what it really all comes back to is that repeated mantra of “You ain’t cool!” that bursts through the murky funk of “Erratic Behaviour”. There’s a pervasive feeling that regardless of how authentic Simms’ “brother from another planet” persona might be, the music is still a matter of style over substance. At its best moments, Chaos: 1978-86 is as hypnotizing as it is unlistenable. At its worst, well, it’s merely self-indulgent. Certainly this collection will be of genuine interest to aficionados of outsider music, but even those with the most obscure of palates will need more than a little patience to find the quality that lies beyond the novelty.