The Noir Traveler Returns: The Evolving Sound of Alvarius B.

The Invisible Hands have given us a glimpse of Alvarius B.'s (Alan Bishop) view of the world from the center of Cairo. It's not a happy perspective, but there's a hint of hope.

Only through opposition can one avoid paraphrase.

— Edgard Varèse

It was late at night the last time I saw Alan Bishop. He was leaning haphazardly against the edge of a stone table that was polished until it shone. Attired in his usual rook-black coat, a kretek cigarette smoldered between his slim fingers as he laughed and blew smoke, his double reflected in the tabletop, in an up-market macaroon bakery in south Jakarta.

This image came to mind when I heard “Priests and Poets” on the new record by his alter ego Alvarius B. Titled Teslam (Abduction, 2014), it is the second outing with his Cairo-based band, The Invisible Hands. There’s something of both the priest and the poet in Bishop’s music; he’s given to creating ritualistic sounds that project the sort of other-world intensity that one expects from both high art and voodoo trance.

Bishop is restless, recording and performing under many names and taking on many projects. Some fans may have encountered the cranky soothsayer “Uncle Jim” on Superstars of Greenwich Meantime (Black Velvet Fuckere, 2005), while others may know his work as a compilation artist, such as Crime and Dissonance, a collection of lesser-known film scores by Ennio Morricone (Ipecac Records, 2005).

If you know the man, you’ll soon realize that Bishop’s varied personas are not performative characters so much as emanations of himself. The Indonesian expression kesurupan, roughly “he is not empty”, meaning that his soul is not solitary in his body, might offer the best explanation. He’s someone compelled to sing in tongues—and he sings a lot.

To appreciate how the latest release fits in Bishop’s large oeuvre, it’s probably a good idea to start with his work with the band he best known for, the fabled Sun City Girls.

Sun City Girls

Named for the sprawling planned community where his family lived in Arizona, Bishop, together with his brother Richard and their friend Charles Gocher, formed the Sun City Girls in 1979. The second phase of the band’s career began in 1993 when they moved from Phoenix to Seattle and started their own record label, Abduction. Some fans will argue that the decade from roughly 1993 to 2003 marks the trio’s creative high point (the smartest analysis of the band is Marc Masters’ overview in Pitchfork,“Underscore: Sun City Girls” of 11 September, 2012).

The band dissembled after the death of Gocher in 2007, though new and re-issued material is still being released, including a retrospective of singles that has now reached disc three, titled Eye Mohini.

With a massive output over a quarter century, it’s hard to categorize the Sun City Girls’ sound. They started as part of the local punk scene, but quickly began to incorporate strange sounds that ranged from spoken word performances to musique concrete elements like tape manipulation to exotic rhythms and percussive beats found in the darkness beyond the orange sodium-vapor lights of the First World. For the uninitiated, a good place to jump in is their cover version of the manic song “Duniya Mein Logon Ko” from the 1972 Bollywood film Apna Desh.

Simultaneously a sincere adaptation and a tongue-in-cheek revaluation, they named their version “Apna Desh” on a single released in 1994 on 78rpm vinyl. Both versions are available on YouTube for comparative listening, which reveals the punk elements that the Sun City Girls’ brought to bear on what is still categorized, somewhat improbably in the 21st century, as “world music”.

It’s a reflection of the impulse that Picasso expressed in his 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, when he painted African masks on French prostitutes then fractured the planes of the picture to match the sharp angles of the totemic objects. In its subject matter and disjointed composition, the painting’s aesthetic shares the sort of darkly violent, exotically sordid experience the Sun City Girls spun out on album after album.

There are also experiments in audio collage, such as the 14 disc (and growing) Carnival Folklore Resurrection Series. The Sun City Girl’s add samples from their own collection of world music albums and recordings from foreign radio. On top of that is the punk noise aesthetic that defined their early sound, strange caterwauls and speaking in demonic tongues. Often the result is as slapstick as it is sinister. There is, at base of all this effort, a Dadaist disregard for seriousness.

Yet for all the crash and bang and guffaws, there are moments in their music that approach the sort of group improvisation that is normally the province of supposedly highfalutin experimental jazz. If the Sun City Girls can be said to resemble any other group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago could it be it. On albums such as their 1969 Paris Sessions, which features a live sound collage titled “The Spiritual”, the parallels between the groups are uncanny. Amidst the walls of improvised sound are strange spoken narratives that are never resolved. The music blends exotic percussion instruments with duck calls, and along with the spooky stories there’s a sense of humor that runs from the sarcastic to the slapstick.

But where the Art Ensemble of Chicago hewed closely to its jazz roots, the Sun City Girls hacked off their tubers after they sprung from the soil—they started out punk and went too far and deep to return. Instead of a homecoming, Bishop found other outlets and alter egos to continue the exploration.

Sublime Frequencies

The long trip outward lead to an impressive record collection that worked its way into audio collages, but the short snippets were not given pride of place. That changed in 2003, when Bishop cofounded, along with Libyan-born Hisham Mayet, the label Sublime Frequencies, whose first releases were culled largely from the personal collections of the founders.

The proclaimed purpose of the label is to expose listeners to “obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short-wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations.” The imprint has enjoyed a rapid ascent, its limited edition releases of music that would otherwise remain inaccessible eagerly sought out by collectors of folk culture.

The titles of some of the label’s releases give an idea of the range of material on offer: Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra; Brokenhearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica from Southeast Asia; Omar Souleyman: Dabke 2020 (Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria); Bollywood Steel Guitar; and A Distant Invitation: Ceremonial Street Recordings from Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Video releases, such as the soulful Southeast Asian adventure My Friend Rain by videographer Robert Millis, and the inspiring Staring Into the Sun, a DVD with an accompanying 136 page book of Polaroid photographs and an audio CD of field recordings from Ethiopia by filmmaker Olivia Wyatt, and the recent video release Vodoun Gods on the Slave Coast, which captures the sacred dance and ritual in Benin, the birthplace and cradle of Vodoun, shot in January 2011 by Hisham Mayet during actual annual Vodoun celebrations, add a visual component to the psychedelic folk music found on the CDs.

(Full disclosure: the 2009 Sublime Frequencies CD Singapore A-Go-Go is taken from my own collection of late ’60s and early ’70s 45rpm Singapore-Chinese pop music records.)

Other than a portal into the many splendored, multi-colored folk music of Africa and the Orient, what one hears on some of these releases is the well-spring for much of the exotic strangeness that inspired not only the Sun City Girls at their creative peak, but also for Bishop’s long running if intermittent solo project, the noir traveler Alvarius B.

Alvarius B.

The self-titled debut Alvarius B. album appeared back in 1994, though the instrumental tracks were recorded from 1981-1989 onto various portable cassette decks. The sound defined a lo-fi psychedelic guitar style that would become both a familiar element for the Sun City Girls as well as Bishop’s solo releases (the debut record was reissued on CD in 2006).

More solo records appeared at an unsteady pace since then, from collaborative work like The Vim & Vigour of Alvarius B. and Cerberus Shoal (North East Indie, 2002) to the recent Baroque Primitiva (Poon Village, 2011). As so often with the trio releases, Bishop’s solo work eschews the usual pop formulation of verse-chorus-bridge for either the measured stridency of folk music, or such rabid mutations of the pop formula that it pushes the pop into the experimental.

These records highlight Bishop’s contributions to the Sun City Girls, but the early albums of the solo venture were often more like an extenuation of an aspect of the group aesthetic rather than the projection of a single element. The sound of a Third World carnival gone wrong remains dominant, but the compelling narrative voices, the various personalities that Bishop embodies are here given a privileged place.

This is most evident on Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset (Abduction, 2005) with tracks that are narrated by different personalities in rapid succession. The album is akin to a collection of short stories, with half-sung, often spoken, lyrics that evoke cinematic imagery, such as these lines from “Mister 786”:

But I needed a half-ton of Persian pistachios

and some imitation shark fins cuz I gotta score to

settle with a Chinese Dick who specializes in bird drool

and he killed a queer buddy of mine in Yunnan

last year over two-dozen Toyotas meant for Lashio

found his carcass in a freight container bound for Medan

carved jack-o-lantern-style wrapped-up with some teak

furniture I order once-in-a-while

These lines, reminiscent of the voiceover to a film noir, are uttered in a cool-guy style inflected with a maniacal twang, yet they retain a sense of humor (“bird drool” is an allusion to “bird’s nest”, the excreted salvia of swallows, a commodity harvested on the south shore of Java and eaten as a delicacy by, amongst others, Chinese, Dicks or otherwise). The music accompanying these meanderings into the economy and mythology of distant lands is the sort of strummed psychedelic folk guitar that appeared on the first Alvarius B. album, but between tracks there are ambient lo-fi noise of field recordings. This collage effect brings to mind radio theatre, the medium by which many of the early hard-boiled novels that eventually became classic noir films were first dramatized.

Bishop discusses his creative techniques: “I write, compose, and combine things in every possible way. I have always been interested in collage. I discovered this as an operating procedure when I was young, stuck with the concept, and have been free to create what I feel all along.

“Others seem to be under the impression that much of what I do is highly planned and manipulated from start to finish, but there is no aesthetic method I am conscious of. Improvisation can manifest as something that sounds perfectly composed, yet a structured piece could sound spontaneous enough to be made up on the spot. I really never try to break down methods or my reasons for doing particular things and I think my ability to continue creating is much stronger because I don’t try to analyze myself too much. That’s when assumptions and absolutes work their manipulative and established socially engineered patterns upon the unsuspecting victim and where false definitions are formed.

“I’d rather move forward than to look back and attempt to define something that has a million interpretations, anyway.”

Photo of Alan B. and the Invisible Hands from the Invisible Hands Facebook page

The Invisible Hands

Moving forward is something the restless musician does constantly—he rarely chases his own musical tail. Which brings us to the new Invisible Hands album, Teslam, the second release in as many years with Alvarius B’s Cairo-based band. (The phrase “invisible hands” is an English translation of the band’s Arabic name, el ayadi el khafeyya, a phrase used by Egyptian media to denote shadowy groups, akin to “men in black”, who supposedly manipulate political events).

If the Sun City Girls can be seen as an unholy blend of punk, music, and free-jazz trio, in which each musician brings separate but equal strengths that unify the whole, then the Invisible Hands can be seen as more of a traditional rock band in which there is a defined leader and specific roles for each of the musicians. Bishop writes most of the songs and is the leader of the group, though with the second release a larger share of the leadership role is being shared with other members of the group.

What can definitely be said is that the Invisible Hands mark a shift in style that makes their sound both more personal and approachable than previous Alvarius B. records. This is largely because Bishop is now working with a regular group of musicians and is recording in Cairo, where the “exoticness” is all around, not just manufactured in the studio. As Clive Bell pointed out in his review of their first album in The Wire (Soundcheck, April 2013, Issue 350, p. 47), Bishop’s ancestry is Lebanese, so in a way his Cairo sojourn is a bizarre homecoming. His wanderlust constrained, it’s almost as if Bishop’s usual frenzy has finally found a focus in the swirling chaos of this Third World mega city.

Album: The Invisible Hands

Artist: The Invisible Hands

Label: Abduction

US release date: 2013-03-19

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/o/opiumtraces-invislbehands-cvr-200.jpgThe opening of the self-titled 2013 debut album marks familiar territory, with field recordings of dogs barking in the distance, sirens, discordant traffic in the distance laying a sonic foundation for a distraught oud, played by Sam Shalabi. Thereafter, the music takes on a style that will be accentuated in the second release, a strange hybrid of Nino Rota soundtracks and early ’70s hard rock.

The Invisible Hands’ debut release was recorded in Cairo in May of 2012, and Bishop told me about its creation during the upheavals that were convulsing the city at the time: “Ten of the eleven songs on the album were written many years ago (six of them pre-1983), so there was no real influence coming from the post-911 world we now live in, with the exception of ‘Black Blood’, which I wrote in Cairo in the fall of 2011. But everything else involved with rehearsing, translating, recording, and performing the songs, was naturally affected by the particular events in Egypt at the time. Things were much more difficult to accomplish than they would have been elsewhere, yet I don’t think I could have made an album like this anywhere else.”

And how did this band come to form? “It manifested under circumstances that developed spontaneously after I met Cherif El Masri and Aya Hemeda on a trip to Cairo for a performance three years ago, and I simply followed the development of those circumstances. We resonated as people first. The music is always secondary. Everyone I’ve ever worked with brings something unique to the table.”

The debut record was released in the States with Bishop singing in English, and in the Middle East, with the voices of Cairo singers Cherif El Masri and Aya Hemeda, singing the same songs in Arabic (a limited edition two-disc LP featured both performances). Explaining the reason behind this approach, Bishop told me, “Naturally the Arabic version was going to be different. I didn’t want Cherif and Aya to imitate me. I wanted and expected them to express in their own way, and I feel that we established two different versions that each have their charms and perhaps their faults, but I can live with the results.”

Including the Arabic gives voice to the directly to the people, yet there’s also a mirroring effect, as though the songwriter were looking through the glass darkly, regarding himself in these strange new circumstances. The latest album lacks this mirror, and the impression is all more immediate and intense.

Album: Teslam

Artist: The Invisible Hands

Label: Abduction

US release date: 2014-10-28

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/o/opiumtraces-teslam-cvr-200.jpgTeslam

Recorded at The Mix Studios in Cairo and mixed at Zulu Sound Studio in Seattle, the Invisible Hands’ sophomore release brings back original members Cherif El Masri, Aya Hemeda, and dummer Magued Nagati, now joined by Adham Zidan on a pulsing organ. Three guest musicans, Mohamed Ibrahim, Mohamed “Moe” Asem and Sammy Sayed, trade roles on vocals, drums, and cello.

In addition, longtime Alvarius B. collaborator, the Seattle-based viola maestro Eyvind Kang appears on four tracks. Kang also performs frequently with such jazz estbalishment figures as Bill Frisell and with high-brow alt rockers Secret Chiefs 3, and his presence on Teslam adds a certain weight to the reception in North America that might otherwise be lacking.

Most tracks on Teslam, which means “blessing,” adhere closely to proven pop formula of verse-chorus-birdge, and some are even catchy, yet all push sonic boundaries, which we’ve come to expect from Alvarius B. records.

The performative aspect is occasionally strong, especially on the track “Eyes in the Back of Your Head”, which features Bishop singing like a carnival raconteur crossed with a sadistic secret police pain specialist, with lines likes “please don’t die, not yet/not ’til I place my last bet”. It’s a testament to the music that a lines like “The stem of the rose trickles blood on your clothes/And oh…..I just love your nose”, delivered in a funny voice that actually sounds scary as hell. One can almost see the hammer in the raised fist, poised to strike.

Another noteworthy track is the epic “The Blaze”. Written and sung by Cherif El Masri, the song is composed of chants about black horses. While the melody is covered in shimmering waves of sound, the shattered ending verges on art noise. The suppressed emotional tension and potential of explosive release of creative young people in present day Cairo is most apparent on this track.

Bishop talked about some of the most unique aspects of this new release: “We were an actual rehearsed band for this album as opposed to the first record, which was assembled more via overdubs and recorded six months before we had established an actual group and performed live. Cherif and Adham contributed great compositional ideas and Teslam has a more colorful and diverse range due to them.”

The upheaval in Cairo continues, but is perhaps not as intense as when he made the first record back in 2012. I asked him to describe any changes in how the atmosphere of the city affected the creative process this time around.

“The practicalities of navigating the city traffic, solving logistical problems, coordinating everyone’s schedules, all seem to effect results more than political or social issues. Spontaneous events can play a role by restricting movement, and there were curfews during the fall of last year that occasionally limited our ability to meet. Having to assemble a project involving seven key people who live all over the metro Cairo area with unique schedules and one- to three-hour commutes to and from rehearsal/recording studios is a major task to arrange consistently. Everyone has multiple creative projects going simultaneously and we learn to live with minimal sleep.”

As opposed to the first album, these songs seem to comment more directly on the political situation in the Mideast, yet it is not a “protest album” in the traditional sense. Why the change in emphasis?

“I truly don’t think there is a significant change in the philosophical tone of the lyrics from the first record to the second. As with the first album, some of the songs were written years before I came to live here and, to a certain degree, whatever is fundamentally happening here socially and politically is simultaneously happening everywhere else on earth.”

Which suggests that the blessing the Invisible Hands have given us is a glimpse of Alvarius B.’s view of the world from the center of Cairo. As perhaps expected, it’s not a happy perspective, though there is a hint of hope. The record’s closing lyrics, written by Bishop and set to mournful guitar music by Cherif El Masri, are:

Open my skin to the jaws

Brush my blood

With a feather in the sky

I have left you

To carrion

Carrion or carry-on? We’ll have to wait for the next the Invisible Hands release to discover which fate lays in store for us, though we can rest assured that more is to come from the primordial soup of Bishop’s brain.