We Are Not the First is for the buffet lover in all of us. Here’s an album from an already forward-thinking artist, meagerly categorized as “experimental”, that covers more ground in one awe-filled swoop than most self-proclaimed “eclectic” noisemakers can manage in one decade. If you feel like saving the apocalyptic spoken-word table for later as you help yourself to some polyphonic techno-pointillism, you are free to do so. If you don’t mind a wailing saxophone holding court on the same album as a female voice whooping up to the ceiling like it was Arnold Schoenberg’s funeral, you are once again in luck. If your love of musique concrète is matched only by avant-garde jazz or abstract electronic music — you get the idea. Unlike actual buffets where quantity and variety run in direct contrast to quality, Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U Ahn-Sahm-Buhl’s We Are Not the First is strong in all aspects.
Chicago DJ, producer, and sound architect Hieroglyphic Being, aka Jamal Moss, has begun to take himself very seriously since donning the moniker. While Moss was a DJ bringing music to the people at large while introducing artists to one another, Hieroglyphic Being understands that now is the time to unleash the potential within his mad hybrids of all things fringe. The music on We Are Not the First — whatever one may call it — has bewildering potential. It confounds and moves the listener at the same time. It impresses with its ingenuity without drowning you in pretentions. It seems to embody all things that elevate modern music to the levels or both high art and simple enjoyment. Humbly, Hieroglyphic Being admits that he didn’t achieve this alone. Enter the J.I.T.U Ahn-Sahm-Buhl.
By assembling the J.I.T.U Ahn-Sahm-Buhl, Hieroglyphic Being surrounds himself with seemingly open-ended talent, a gaggle of artists who will eagerly follow their producer through a series of hoops that any given whim would require. Several musicians appear to be qualified multi-instrumentalists like Marshall Allen, Daniel Carter, Shahzad Ismaily, and Elliot Levine. Those four names alone can take care of sax, trumpet, flute, keyboards, guitar, bass, and percussion. Vocalists Shelley Hirsch and Rafael Sanchez have smaller but no less vital roles on We Are Not the First, giving tracks their peculiar flavor that probably can’t be replicated by another vocalist. Ben Vida and Greg Fox, on synthesizers and drums respectively, contribute sounds that lie at the heart of and propel the ship carrying the J.I.T.U Ahn-Sahm-Buhl. The sounds found on We Are Not the First can be dizzying to the point where it’s hard to visualize a bunch of people sitting around in a studio, creating it all. At times it feels like the sound can’t belong to any one musician in the same way that these 11 tracks don’t belong to any one genre.
“Apes & Ages” kicks open the door of the album in a free jazz manor, though the off-kilter percussion and recitations of the proverbial “primate” and its spawn from the “primordial ooze” isn’t exactly the stuff of Ornette Coleman. That slate is whiped clean for a new format by track two. “Civilation That Is Dying” is in the grip of Hirsch’s randomly firing soprano backed by programmed beats that sound like scattering mice. The remaining songs on the album’s first half heavily play up the electronica card, though no two songs appear to do it in quite the same way. Where “Cybernetics Is An Old Science” takes a jubilant albeit troubled path, “Three More Days” plays around in a low boil where each part of the mix sounds like they’re about to erupt. An obfuscated rapid-fire vocal delivery in “Fuck the Ghetto/Think About Outer Space” prods urban distress sideways, thanks to the voice track being dropped an octave or so (like when your walkman was low on batteries). It’s hard to single out any particularly unique track on We Are Not the First since every song seems to be unique on its own, but the title track gives that notion an enduring run for its money. Foreshadowed earlier by a five-plus-minute track early in the album named “Pussy Thumper”, “We Are Not the First” is saved for last in all its 18-plus-minute glory. Just imagine Aphex Twin’s “Funny Little Man”, add at least a dozen extra sounds for your mind’s ear, make them ping against one another for close to 20 minutes, and you have an idea of what’s in store at the end of the album. It’s relentless in the way it never lets up during the entire track, taking up more than a quarter of the album’s run time.
In a nit-picky way, the word “experimental” doesn’t seem fitting for an album like this. The word alone gives the impression that someone is just trying something for the first time and is fully aware of the odds that this braze new idea will fail. We Were Not the First is so convincing, so sure of itself that it hardly feels like an experiment at all. There are no half-baked ideas or botched executions. There is no flagging sense of identity or tiresome homogeneity. It’s all freakishly alive and breathing somehow, living in a land where earnest flaws and strokes of brilliance disappear into the same primordial ooze and absolutely no one is the wiser.