Do you know what’s an important task for music criticism in the early 21st century? Getting to grips with the relationship between classical music and popular music, that’s what. It’s important to appreciate that, these days, the boundary between the two forms is rather porous – it’s totally acceptable for symphony orchestras to lend their services to a diverse range of acts, from heavy metal to Detroit techno, and there’s a wide range of post-classical music that blurs the lines between modernist minimalism and more traditional forms with ambient and electronic touches. Basically, we need to take all the talk of classical music’s “elitism” and all the postmodern talk of the (no doubt, long gone) emancipatory potential of pop music off the table. Then again, that raises the issue of our use of language when we start talking about aesthetics in a non-academic setting – we need to ask how we can talk about one form of music in the context of the other without having to do, y’know, musicology.
The presence of Mike Patton on Laborintus II provides us with just such an opportunity. His musical ambitions have always transcended the limitations of pop even if he himself is a rock star of sorts, and he’s gone from fronting metal bands to creating avant-metal reinterpretations of film soundtracks to collaborating with weird beard jazz guy John Zorn. On Laborintus II, Patton collaborates with Belgian Dadaist classical bunch the Ictus Ensemble. The record itself is a re-wiring of Luciano Berio’s composition from back in 1965, which is itself based on the poetry of Communist Dante scholar Edoardo Sanguineti. It’s essentially a mad piece of musical theatre, and it might just turn out that Laborintus II is the strangest off-off Broadway production ever devised – a timely take on Sanguineti’s critique of the commodification of everything in the whole wide world.
Laborintus II is composed of three parts that, here, last for just over half an hour. But you need to keep its theatrical origins in mind, and it isn’t exactly clear if it works as a standalone record if we have to abstract it from the context of its performance. But that doesn’t stop it being an immensely challenging (and exhausting and, well, fun) thing to listen to. In fact, it could well be the most unsettling thing you listen to all year, so the best thing you can do is try to chart the topography of this racket.
Three female voices float in and out of earshot throughout, variously cooing and howling and wailing like demented Sirens. The percussion, meanwhile, is like a frazzled takedown of things like, you know, rhythm and timing. It clatters away, building the tension brick by awkwardly-angled brick before breaking it all down again. But then, at around the four-minute-mark in part one, things start to sound a bit like Bitches Brew — there’s a turbulent shuffle of free jazz cymbal work that very nearly pins down a fluttering flute, which leads us back up the garden path into musical chaos.
It’s a weird musical argument that constantly emphasises its own unpredictability, its own weird instability. One instrument is always interrupting another: trumpets and trombones sputter all over each other, playing messed up, honking fanfares, while those shrill female voices are knocked out of focus by woodblocks, sleigh-bells and what is either a gong or just a colossal cymbal. But then, halfway through part two, just after it sounds like Patton is yelling about the virtues of the dictatorship of the proletariat, an orchestra springs up and plays a series of hyperactive Looney Tunes figures. And even though the music veers into Raymond Scott-territory, Patton still reels off some seriously creeptacular incantations.
At times, Patton sounds grim, medieval, almost priestly. Picture the scene he’s narrating: the plague of neoliberalism is ravaging Europe; victims find their necks bulging with bulbous, pus-filled cists (with mouths) that charge 1743% APR for quick personal loans; the government say that the only cure comes in the form of a confusingly bitter medicine made of swingeing austerity measures and conspicuous consumption; ex-members of the Italian Communist Party march through town, self-flagellating in penance. It sounds rather familiar, really, doesn’t it?
But the problem with all of this is that is pretty much impossible to work out what is going on without being a native Italian speaker. If you don’t have access to a translation of the text, you’re kinda screwed. Then again, the whole thing is totally nuts, and it really is a lot to take in. But then again, Laborintus II engages our brains as well as our ears, forcing us into asking some pretty big questions on a political front as well as on an aesthetic front. It tries to get us to completely rethink the categories we use to talk about music, and about using that music as a critique of social domination. But who is this music for? Is it for the adventurer in modern music? Yes. Is it for gloomy neo-Marxian critical theorists? Yep. Is it for teenage Faith No More fans? Sure, why not? It makes us open our eyes and our ears and our mouths and our noses to super mega proper musical imagination in a way that might even outwit the logic of late capitalism. Right on time, too.