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Bill Brovold and Larval - Surviving Death / Alive Why?

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Artist: Bill Brovold and Larval

Album: Surviving Death / Alive Why?

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Mar. 8, 2007

Bill Brovold still considered himself primarily a visual artist when Rhys Chatham noticed a guitar standing against the wall at his studio and asked if he'd consider joining a guitar ensemble. Plunged into NYC's no wave scene, Brovold (alongside Band of Susan's Robert Poss, Glenn Branca and other notable musicians) contributed to the massed electric guitar sound of Chatham's late-'80s compositions. Then, abruptly, it was over, though apparently without much rancor. In his acknowledgments on Surviving Death / Alive Why?, a disc of new material balanced by one of older live recordings,Brovold thanks his family, his supporters and Rhys Chatham "for kicking me out of his band so I would start my own."

After kicking around Washington State, Brovold returned to Detroit and began Larval in 1996. Over five records to date (six if you count the solo disk Childish Delusions from 2000), some 45 musicians have wandered in and out of the band - some from New York'savant-garde , others fresh from jazz performance studies at University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor. (About half of them appear on one or the other of these disks; there are 22 people credited on performances recorded from 1999 to 2006.) He also maintained deep ties to the Motor City's rock tradition. A few months after I interviewed him in 2003,Brovold sent me a photo of him playing at Detroit's art museum with Scotty and Ron Asheton; at the time, they were known mostly as two guys who used to be in the Stooges.

The music that Brovold creates brings all these elements together. The instrumentation - with saxophones and brass - and tricky rhythmic underpinnings remind you of jazz. The emphasis on repetition and drone put you squarely in minimalist territories. Yet, the electric guitar rules over all this difficulty with a big distorted rock grin. It's complicated and accessible at the same time, the sort of music that has you trying to dance in 7/4.

The new material on disc one, recorded in Brovold's home studio last year, is more subdued than the live material, its jazzy exuberance tempered by lyrical interludes. One song is pure, tranquil beauty, the piano (Mary Alice) and organ (Brovold) duet "The Hospital Visit." Like several other tracks from the album - "The 300-pound Nurse" and the title track "Surviving Death" - this one seems to document a troubling period inBrovold's life, a death of someone close. Yet while "300 Pound Nurse" is full of anxiety, dissonant honks and bowings, "Hospital Visit" is all resolution, the coming to terms with love and loss.

Some of the cuts combine these two elements, with manic grooves giving way to serene meditations. "It Was a Puny Plan" starts off in blurting, sax-enhanced, exuberance, repetitive riffs built out of notes not ordinarily juxtaposed. The piece abruptly cuts to sleek, legato moodiness, long sax notes blurring together in undulating textures; there's a return to the earlier off-kilter bounce, then a retreat to pensive tranquility. Near the end there's a wonderful, squealing, sax solo that might fit perfectly well on a Springsteen record. The point is that the cut is abstract and gorgeous and rocking by turns,collaged together in a way that makes perfect sense but requires your full attention.

The second disk pulls live performances from four sessions, representing three of four Larval albums, some unreleased material, a cut from the soloBrovold disc, and a Rhys Chatham composition. It's a fantastic though non-chronological overview of Brovold's career so far, everything amped and sped up and rocked out for the live setting. It starts with "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back," whose abstract, bowed opening gives way to a guitar-heavy, metronome-like groove. It's one of the later-recorded cuts and not on any of the Larval albums, so it seems likely to be new, though untouched by any of the melancholy or anxiety of the first disc. In fact, all of the live cuts, early and late, have anunmistakable joy to them, built on strident rock rhythms and playful interchange between the musicians. The second disc's highlights include an ominous, over-tone heavy march throughChatham's "Guitar Trio" (much heavier and dirtier sounding than Jonathan Kane's take last year), and a buoyant, madly swinging "Last Ditch" from Obedience. There is a rethinking of one ofLarval's earliest tunes, "The Entity," with longtime collaborator Kurt Zimmerman's violin snaking through a miasma of layered guitars and bass, and a wonderful, humorous take on "One Last Fight"'s halfRamones-rock, half duck-call guitar riff. I'm not sure the second disc is better than the first, but it's certainly more fun.

Taken as a whole, though, Surviving Death/Alive Why? is about as cogent a synthesis of rock, jazz and no wave as you're likely to find. Yes it leans a little bit to the rock side, and yes it may appeal more to non-experts than avid experimental music fans. But what else would you expect from a guy who plays as comfortably with RhysChatham as with Iggy's backing band.

By Jennifer Kelly

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