The Alchemist: Trey Spruance's Ongoing Quest for Greatness

If what eventually follows Secret Chiefs 3's Book of Horizons (2004) is half as good as the opening salvo (now seven years old, already!), we are in for something special, and Trey Spruance will begin to solidify his case as one of the most important -- if largely unheralded -- musicians of his time.

I used to believe it was one of the minor musical tragedies of the last quarter-century that the great Mr. Bungle could not keep it together. Three spectacular albums (each better than the last) and... done. It seemed neither fair nor possible that one band with so much talent and eccentric, rejuvenating brilliance would call it quits. A lot of diehard fans, like myself, thought the individual musicians were making a big mistake; how could they walk away from what they’d created? I’ve since come to realize -- and appreciate -- that regardless of the reasons (one may have simply been that there literally were too many ideas and possible directions for one band to handle, plain and simple), the demise of Bungle was, ironically, a blessing on multiple fronts. For one, the band could end on the highest of notes, and secondly, it freed the boys up to leap headlong into their various -- and quite varied -- obsessions and distractions.

I’ve written in the past, lovingly, about one of those “distractions” (indeed, Mr. Bungle was itself a “distraction” considering Patton was also the frontman for Faith No More, and fans of that band are still trying to get over the disintegration of that band), Fantomas, and also given righteous and well-warranted props to another Patton side-project, Tomahawk. Of course, the peripatetic Mr. Patton scarcely needs additional accolades, and he continues to stalk his untamed compulsions down roads that are at times beyond belief and other times… eh. He remains the ultimate iconoclast; easily the best vocalist of his generation, he could have sold out any number of times along the way and retired, fat and (un)happy, half-baked on some beach in Malibu. He is not infallible but his integrity is unimpeachable. Trever Dunn, bandmate and bassist, has gone on to work closely with John Zorn and stake his claim as a big-time serious musician. If you want to hear something off the straight and narrow-minded, pick up his amazing Sister Phantom Owl Fish.

But the primary reason I could tolerate Mr. Bungle’s dissolution, and now find myself grateful for it, is Secret Chiefs 3, the band featuring flutes, violins, guitars and sitars. Eastern beats and insane time signatures… what’s not to love? If you’re thinking Ravi Shankar meets Metallica you’re not half-wrong, but that scarcely scratches the surface.

Which brings us to Trey Spruance, the final piece of the Bungle puzzle. Listening to the beautiful back alleys where each of these musicians has set up camp during the past decade, it’s at once easy and not-so-easy to figure out who contributed what. Indeed, Patton helped write a great deal of the music and both Dunn and Spruance -- in addition to writing a ton of the music -- also contributed lyrics. Still, you can somewhat appreciate the kitchen-sink sensibility Patton brought to the table and the more broad and refined compositional acumen of Dunn. But Spruance was, in many regards, the alchemist who supplied the panoramic palette and created/invented sounds that conjure up ancient history and science fiction, sometimes at the same time. Perhaps the best distillation of this genius is a track from Mr. Bungle's second album Disco Volante called “Desert Search for Techno Allah”. From 1995 (!), this fantastic mind-fuck is delicious and disorienting, and there is no other band who has ever produced anything like it.

Secret Chiefs 3, at first a Fantomas-like side project for both Spruance and, initially, Dunn, made two albums in the ’90s, First Grand Constitution and Bylaws (1996) and Second Grand Constitution and Bylaws (1998). The first is a worthwhile curio, but not essential; the second one is a radical step forward and is a crucial addition to any collection. I could say a great deal about this one, but why not have a look and a listen (and appreciate violin virtuoso and sometime-member Eyvind Kang, who I’ve talked about at some length here)?

That is the full splendor of the aesthetic Spruance is tapping into: quirky rhythms and non-Western instruments invoking an altogether different time and place -- like the soundtrack of a Pharoah being mummified.

The year 1999 brought the one-two punch of California and the first Fantomas effort, and by the time a new century rolled around, Patton was fronting Tomahawk and scores of spurned Faith No More and Bungle aficionados wondered if a fate worse than Y2K had actually occurred.

But in 2001 Spruance made it clear that the side project was now a full-time endeavor: Book M is a near-masterpiece and while it’s delightfully weird enough to scare off the amateurs, there is abundant joy to be found within. To say that Secret Chiefs 3 are Mr. Bungle without the vocals does not even come close to describing them, or doing their remarkable music the slightest justice. Book M features a lot of Secret Chiefs doing what they do best: blending surf-thrash guitar into a narcotic jazz groove with a distinctly Eastern (think Indian meets Bollywood in a cloud of opium) influence, with a healthy dose of Ennio Morricone. It’s not deliberately abstruse or eccentric for the sake of being eccentric; there is most definitely a very calculated (and complicated) method to this madness. And madness never felt so fresh and funky.

Still, very little could have prepared anyone for the next installment, Book of Horizons, which was allegedly the first part of a trilogy. If what eventually follows is half as good as the opening salvo (now seven years old, already!), we are in for something special, and Spruance will begin to solidify his case as one of the most important -- if largely unheralded -- musicians of his time. Speaking of time… it’s been seven years. It is well-documented that Spruance is a perfectionist (a tendency that at least results in superlative recordings), and he strikes me as an old school technician; almost more of a literary figure than a musician. His albums are more like events, and signify a painstaking process of trying to get things exactly right. If he was easier on himself, he could clearly churn out very good albums on a more regular basis -- but he is not interested in very good albums, he seeks to make perfect albums. Book of Horizons is as close to perfect as anything he has done yet, and -- based on live footage available on the Internet -- the new shit is going to be well worth the wait.

In fairness, the dude has not been incommunicado. In fact, in 2008 he oversaw the Secret Chiefs 3 brand taking on the John Zorn songbook. The result, Xaphan: Book of Angels Volume 9, is exactly what one would expect: Spruance & Co. interpreting Zorn’s postmodern klezmer/classical arrangements. Then in 2010 we got Satellite Supersonic Vol. 1, which features some newer material and older live stuff. More than enough to tide us over.

And he has taken the show on the road on at least a semi-regular basis. I made it a point to be in the right place at the right time and caught them one Monday night at a small venue in Washington, D.C.

The succinct review follows: Un-fucking-believable. I always figured Spruance and the crew would be a scorching live experience, and I was correct. Hearing all those sounds is enough of an experience, but seeing them make the sounds and how it all comes together is both thrilling and inspiring. During the 90-minute set, some old favorites were expertly revisited and several new songs were featured. Fingers shall remain crossed that some (or all!) of that material will be on the subsequent release(s). Having the opportunity to speak briefly with the man in question I got right down to business: When is the next installment set to come out? "In May" was the answer. After seven years that seems like it will be here before we know it. And we can, hopefully, contribute further to the ongoing discussion of this legit heavyweight who has made some of the best music you owe it to yourself to own.

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