Alvarius B.: With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven

Alan Bishop ventures out once more under his Alvarius B. alias, this time bringing along a handful of collaborators and multiple discs worth of material that could well serve as the high-water mark of his career.

Following the untimely cessation of the much-beloved underground eclectics Sun City Girls in 2007 due to the death of percussionist Charles Gocher, the brothers Bishop (Alan and Richard) have shown no signs of slowing down their respective creative output. As the voice (and low end) of Sun City Girls, Alan Bishop (aka Alvarius B.) has continued, in his own way, to further the late band’s legacy with a sprawling series of appropriately avant-garde recordings and world music experimentalism. As co-founder of the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies, he and Hisham Mayet have tapped into the spiritual predecessors of Sun City Girls’ pan-globalism, offering up little-heard recordings both classic and contemporary from around the globe.

Given this level of global fetishism, it should come as no surprise that his latest release under the Alvarius B. handle recorded in Egypt with an array of collaborators both Western and non relies heavily on assorted world music idioms, many of which he has explored previously but rarely with this level of accessibility. Where Sun City Girls built an aesthetic around all manner of often wildly cacophonous sounds and competing textures, Bishop as Alvarius B in recent years has lessened somewhat the insularity of the music, expanding into what could be argued as not only more accessible but ultimately more musically intriguing and nuanced.

This isn’t to say he has mellowed by any stretch of the imagination; simply listen to 2014’s acoustic guitar freakout record
What One Man Can Do with an Acoustic Guitar, Surely Another Can Do with His Hands Around the Neck of God or 2013’s less-than-subtle Fuck You and the Horse You Rode in On. These were intentionally lo-fi, almost antagonistic records that continued the legacy of Sun City Girls at its basest level. By comparison, With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven, recorded over nearly four years, is his Sgt. Pepper moment wherein he pulls out all the stops, upping the production quality to previously unheard of realms of listenability and clarity, dialing back the grating dissonance and create a 35-song collection that only vaguely recall anything he has done previously.

Of course, his misanthropy remains fully in place, the album being released as a two-CD set and three individual LPs – Natural Wonder, A Mark Twain August and Heathen Folklore – and with accompanying commentary from Bishop remarking on his “133 ‘fans'” and whether or not he really feels that he wants any more, regardless of the perception of the new album(s). Fair enough. Parsing each out into their respective vinyl formats is perhaps the best way in which to approach any critical assessment of the sprawling collection he has assembled with the help of members of Invisible Hands and Master Musicians of Bukkake, among others.

Vol. 1 – Natural Wonder is by far the most accessible of the three, at times sounding downright quaint and pleasant in its spectral folk mysticism. “Zion the Rocket Ship” could be a 21st-century reimagining of a shadow Dylan filtered through a death’s head croak, the words and meaning alternately obsequious and absurd: “Look out for creeping globalist two-party majorities / And watch out for groping morons’ hands at airport security / Watch out for four-eyed DJs who don’t smoke and never pee / And my academic vocabulary exclusivity.”

Despite the intentionally abstruse nature of the lyrics, the music itself proves highly hypnotic, a circular chord progression and challenging harmonic intervals within the vocals. It’s but one example of what amounts to an extremely solid opening act (see also: “Their Words Disappear”, “Yellow Dog Prairie” and “Central California Nightmare” for accessibility and lush melodicism, both musical and lyrical).

Indeed, many of the tracks on Vol. 1 – Natural Wonder could be categorized as freak folk, albeit at its most coherent. Those looking for the atonal dissonance of either Sun City Girls or previous Alvarius B. outings will be left scratching their heads from note one, the album largely acoustic, subdued and – apologies in advance – downright pleasant to listen to. Where other elements of his recorded output can be appreciated, Vol. 1 – Natural Wonder can be listened to and enjoyed to a level not previously associated with either Bishop brother. That, of course, proves to be something of a false approximation of what the rest of the collection has to offer. Thankfully, the album’s eight-minute closing “The Reason” serves as a palate cleanser with its needling feedback and frenetic guitar noodling. Here Alvarius B. returns to more familiar avant-garde territory, though admittedly briefly, before embarking on the more (contextually speaking; there’s nothing that couldn’t be put on in mixed company without fear of clearing the room) outré sonic experiments that make up Vol. 2 – A Mark Twain August and Vol. 3 – Heathen Folklore.

“The world is a big mystery / Where death is the land of the free / I’m blinded by history / I can’t see what I can see,” he sings on the menacing psychedelia of “Big Mystery”, alluding to a certain another song to which many swear allegiance. It’s about as overtly political as he can get, the remainder of his lyrical vitriol reserved for those around him. “Mark Twain August” plays vaguely country in its drunken swagger, banjo comingling with the faintest hints of eastern modalities. Like the songs that make up Vol. 1 – Natural Wonder, “Mark Twain August” is in no hurry, rolling along as if in the late-August heat, slowed to a near crawl yet still radiating the warmth of an afternoon spent venturing inward.

“Dark iIn My Heart” goes full country-shuffle and offers up some of Bishop’s best faux-folk musings (like an acid-tongued John Prine or less strident Shel Silverstein): “Well they told me if I smoked too much that I could never sing, never sing / So I started screaming / I jumped into a taxi, and the driver was a dwarf, was a dwarf / Now he’s my lawyer / Oh it’s dark, yeah it’s dark in my heart / Got a phone call from some cretin who told me that I should vote, I should vote / rather slit my throat.” His catalog of grievances goes on to encompass ageism, the commodification of art and general prickliness. The reaches its apex in “Me & Me”, one of the best songs Vol. 2 has to offer, a genuine pop song with country underpinnings that still retains its underground palmarés.

In the cranky press releases accompanying each volume, Bishop’s assessment of Vol. 3 – Heathen is the most indicative of what listeners can expect: “Serial killing was one of history’s greatest art forms. Now it’s becoming almost impossible to get a skull-drilling startup off the ground unless you murder for the corporations or governments where you have highly organized protection from any enforceable law but at the expense of sacrificing all the glory for the anonymity required to maintain employment. So, unfortunately, the days of any zit topography random commoner being able to string together a few killings to hit the big time before being caught has almost come to an end. Sad. This record, the third and final volume of my new three-LP set called Heathen Folklore, could serve as somewhat of a manual of inspiration on how one could start such a career, as risky and unpopular as it is. It gets much more fucked-up than the previous two LPs, and sometimes I think it’s the best one due to that aspect. I’d have to give it one more listen but I also think this is the LP with coded messages that could trigger an unsuspecting listener to start his/her career in extreme behavior.”

Intentionally provocative and confrontational – albeit rather humorously and absurdly so if taken at face value – it’s nonetheless an appropriate summation of the songs on this third and final volume of
With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven. While still largely acoustic-based, the songs here offer more layers of instrumentation and an increasingly irritable sensibility that manifests itself in the swarm-of-angry-bees guitar buzz of “Icicle Pillar” and the sour blues of “Cantaloupe Brain”.

On the whole, With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven has a great deal to offer; so much so that it’s best consumed as three separate entities rather than taking in the full 35 tracks in one sitting. And while it won’t necessarily make Alvarius B. a household name – how strange would that be? – this may well be the album that sees his fan base grow (at least temporarily) well beyond 133. If not, those of us already held under his strangely surrealistic sway will manage to get on just fine.