GUEST: Arlo Bigazzi, Claudio Chianura, & Lance Henson – The Wolf and the Moon – Drop 6

4 March 2000

We typically don’t talk about Various Artists compilations in this space largely because so (a) so few of them are available, and (b) they rarely feature any songs that can’t be found elsewhere. With No-Man, though, there are a couple of unique edits and remixes sprinkled across several compilations. There was, for example, a Donovan tribute album released in 1992 that featured a No-Man cover of Turquoise. The next year, there was a One Little Indian compilation featuring a demo of Taking It Like A Man. The Mix magazine released a compilation in 1994 featuring an alternate mix of Simple. And so on, and so on. Besides the ostensible subject of this post, the other interesting compilation here is 1999’s The Sky Goes All The Way Home, released as part of a fundraiser for Down’s Syndrome, which I mostly mention here because I did a double take upon noticing that one of the artists featured here is, in fact, the same Troy Donockley who’d go on to play Uilleann pipes for Nightwish. Funny how worlds collide. No-Man contributed a reconstructed version of Close Your Eyes.

Now, then. The source material for this compilation is a collaboration between Arlo Bigazzi, Claudio Chianura, and Lance Henson called Another Train Ride. Lance Henson is an interesting character, a Cheyenne poet from Oklahoma who typically uses naturalistic and traditional Native imagery to draw attention to the struggles facing indigenous and oppressed peoples around the world. Many of his works are sparse and freeform, with a McCarthy-esque aversion to capitals and punctuation. Although Henson’s delivery on this album is practiced, measured, and contemplative, low-key to the point of sounding like a text-to-speech program, there remains through the words themselves the potent mix of compassion, empathy, and fury that animates him to write these things in the first place.

Meanwhile, as is common for spoken word, Bigazzi and Chianura’s instrumentation are ambient, mostly-electronic pieces that keep a respectful distance from Henson’s words, attempting primarily to accentuate his points. In this they are partially successful. The music chosen for Revolutionary Song, for instance, gestures toward a pastoral melancholy, but is ultimately just a bit too upbeat and bubbly for what is honestly a rather sad poem. Some more successful examples, perhaps. Another Border, which sounds like Muslimgauze if Bryn Jones was actually Palestinian. The Abandoned Piano, in which an actual piano chimes in to offer a flicker of light and warmth in amongst the desolation. And, of course, The Raven Poems, in which the music is defined primarily by its absence, communicating less a wasteland and more the absence of a land to waste, a no thing, a surreal all-consuming almost Ligotti-esque hellscape where the few scraps of the material universe that remain suspended in the astral void are at once dead and poisoned.

Thus do we arrive at The Wolf and The Moon – Drop 6, a collection of remixes and reconstructions featuring names big and small. Roger Eno contributed to My Heart is Traveling, the English version of Na Shi Ne. Richard Barbieri contributed to a remix of Revolutionary Song. And No-Man contributed a reconstruction of The Raven Poems.

This reconstruction retains little of the all-consuming minimalism that permeated the original track, instead opting for something more trancelike, vaguely evocative of the One Little Indian days. There’s a flute that comes in toward the end, performing a swirling, soaring melody as Henson repeats “bird shadow, wolf, and moon” over a muffling effect.

Many of the other songs are similar to this one, with the backing tracks reworked so they were faster and punchier, sounding like a goulash of trip hop, drum-n-bass, what a 90s computer game would think is a new jack swing, and, in one case, plunderphonics. But that’s part of the problem with this album: the backing tracks feel like they’re trying to upstage the words…and that’s easier to do when the words themselves have been cut up and distorted and filtered, and in some cases removed entirely. The poetry becomes just another instrument, and any meaning is subsumed into an aesthetic. Henson is apparently happy enough with the album that it’s featured on his website, but treating the words in this way still feels, er, troubling. It’s well-made, yes, but the fact remains that this is a record that probably should not exist.

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Bass Communion – Bass Communion V Muslimgauze

September 1999
Bass Communion V Muslimgauze EP, July 2000

Hooboy.

Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones is one of those guys who probably should have a song-by-song retrospective written about his work, ideally by some underground music nerd who’s written a dissertation on recent Middle Eastern history. Over the course of his twenty-year career he’d release well over a hundred studio albums, mostly atmospheric loop-based electronic pieces (swinging between ambient and dub and noise and everywhere in between) with vocal samples and traditional Middle Eastern instruments thrown in, all laser-focused on conflict in the Muslim world. The music of Muslimgauze, and the way it interacts with the person who created it, is full of apparent contradictions, and is worth engaging with because of them.

Let us, then, engage. Famously, Jones himself was a nonreligious white guy from Manchester who never visited the Mideast on the grounds that it was (and is) occupied territory. His impetus for starting the project was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and over the next seventeen years he’d develop an encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and history, but his perspective on that history never progressed beyond “aggressively woke Tumblr teenager.” Even more bizarrely, outside of his strident opposition to Western imperialism and adventurism in the Mideast, his politics were apparently wildly incoherent, to the point where the creator of an album titled Fuck Israel happened to also be, of all things, a Thatcher supporter.

This is actually perfectly ideologically consistent. The mistake here is assuming that an anti-imperialist position is exclusively leftist when it’s not hard to come up with counterexamples. (To pick one immediately to hand, Khomeini. He may have called the US the Great Satan but that doesn’t mean his post-revolution goal was a secular, moneyless, propertyless utopia.) This myopia can be partially explained through Jones’ nationality: he lived in a country whose late empire remains lamented amongst its right wing. Meanwhile, in a country that was the victim of empire, it’s not hard for a conservative nationalist anti-imperialism to develop, perhaps centering around an idealized vision of how the land was before the Westerners started marching in with their tanks and their decadence and their arbitrarily drawn lines.

(Tangent 1: So it’s clear that leftist and rightist anti-imperialisms can bleed into each other pretty easily. Going back to Iran, for instance, both socialists and theocrats had a hand in toppling the Shah in 1979. That said, it’s probably best to leave the question of how to deal with the uncomfortable ways left and right intersect here to those actually on the ground.)

(Tangent 2: And that, by the way, is how Ostalgie-riddled ex-Communist East Germany fell hard for the AfD.)

(Tangent 3: That for all his militancy Jones was apparently very awkward and introverted in real life should also not be surprising, as anyone who actually knows militant Internet people can testify.)

It is this sort of conservative anti-imperialism that the music of Muslimgauze easily lends itself to. Many of the album and song titles—when they’re not referencing a specific person or event or blasting a nation complicit in the systematic oppression of Muslim people—reference a traditional aspect of Islamic society and culture. The field recordings and use of traditional instruments paint a picture of a traditional society that has had modernity—in the form of oil-thirsty empire—imposed on it from outside and which is suffering for it.

(Tangent 4: The most immediate critique—the West ≠ modernity—is obvious and essential. This conflation we can probably chalk up to the way Britain thought of its empire as a civilizing force instead of the destructive force it actually was.)

If we’re being unkind, we might even call this a fetishization of Middle Eastern culture, and speculate that Jones’ refusal to actually visit the Mideast might also have been subconsciously fueled by a desire to not have this very intricate idea of the Muslim world, silted into existence over years and years of research and music production, collapse in on itself after coming into contact with reality. That’s a fair critique. It certainly reads that way to someone like me whose mental image of the Mideast is less Hebron and more Dubai. Either way, though, there’s extremely little in the way of any broader anti-capitalist sentiment here.

Nevertheless, the field recordings are evocative, the dronework unsettling, the electronics abrasive and challenging. The questionable politics are there, yes, but they’re questionable in very specific and idiosyncratic ways that demand polysyllabic engagement. This remains, fundamentally, very well-made music.

(Tangent 5: Besides, if I only listened to music that aligned with my specific politics I’d only listen to anarchist crust punk recorded in squats, and that’s no way to go through life.)

(Tangent 6: And no, I have no idea how you’d make an explicitly leftist counterpoint to Muslimgauze. Perhaps ask someone who’s actually from the Mideast.)

Steven Wilson has a longstanding policy of not caring about an artist’s politics, so long as the music is good. (Not unrelatedly, Steven Wilson is a cisgender white man.) And this music is extremely good, and more importantly, extremely good in an off-kilter left-field way that’s right up his alley. So, when Wilson discovered Bryn Jones and his considerable discography, he wrote to him, they met, and he gave Jones some of his own music, which Jones then heavily edited to fit his own style and sent back.

The two of them would fling remixes and remixes of remixes back and forth until an album emerged. The result is something that would be a lighter Muslimgauze offering if it didn’t sound like Muslimgauze run [further] through the William S. Burroughs cut-up method. There’s not much in the way of Jones’ usual trademarks, like the vocal samples or the percussion, but there’s a lot of distortion and artistic brickwalling. It’s like if someone dunked the Muslimgauze machine in water and then let it rip. As for Bass Communion, their (“their”) more pronounced contributions generally show up toward the back, with Moonloop leftovers showing up in Four and Six, and their penchant for slow, incremental change (not, critically, a Muslimgauze staple) appearing in Five.

In general, though, this collaboration still feels like a watering down of each artists’ respective strengths. As I write this I still find myself drawn to the punchier stuff Jones released solo instead of what this collaboration produced. Bass Communion fares slightly better, but that may have more to do with the way their identity is less subsumed into the collective muck than anything. In that respect, this EP feels somewhat unbalanced, and one would expect a months-long remix and re-remix effort to eventually produce something that both retained each artist’s individual identity and molded them together into something distinctive. That didn’t quite happen.

It’s probably inaccurate to say it’s a “missed opportunity.” That would imply there’s some ideal way for a Bass Communion/Muslimgauze collaboration to sound, and given the two projects approach ambient and experimental music from perpendicular directions (loosely: BC plays up the alien-ness of its soundscapes, whereas Muslimgauze is firmly rooted in the real world), if there is one, this is probably it. But it doesn’t really matter, because the two artists wouldn’t have the chance to collaborate again. Bryn Jones died of a rare blood disease in 1999, leaving behind a Tupac-sized mountain of unreleased work that took over fifteen years to fully sift through. (Fortunately, it’s all on Spotify. My personal recommendation is to start with Gun Aramaic and work your way outwards from there.) Wilson, meanwhile, would go on to collaborate with multiple Israeli artists (one of whom is related to Moshe Dayan), have a second home in Tel Aviv, and describe other musicians’ support of BDS as performative ego-stroking. Go figure.