Brainville 3
Trial By Headline


I have to confess that right at the moment when, totally by chance, I got to know about the very existence of Brainville 3 - about a couple of years ago, I think - I raised an eyebrow, and then the other one, too: really a "Super-Group of the Rock Avant-garde", to say the least! But though to me it all sounded a bit too crazy to be true (hard as I tried, I could not seem to find any reason why those three heroes were supposed to play together), the whole thing possessed its own kind of inner logic: "Former members of Gong, Soft Machine and Henry Cow" reads well on any wall, and given the peculiar financial nature of present times...

My discomfort originated from two main factors: first, calling Daevid Allen "a former member of Gong", besides being commercially pertinent, was actually truthful - 'cause in his case this was, after all, all that really mattered; but both Hugh Hopper and Chris Cutler, however, were instrumentalists extraordinaire whose histories were not confined to those semi-famous groups whose names read well on any wall; what role was in store for them, if not a "supporting deluxe" in an aesthetic that - I imagined - could only have been that of a "Daevid Allen Trio", though with a healthy dose of "class deluxe" added?

My second reason for discomfort was of a very different nature: though I have nothing at all against giving artists their proper chance to age gracefully, I've always had ambivalent thoughts about later tours of people such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and John Mayall; things get even more complicated when taking into account (let's leave the matter of vocals out of the present discussion, agreed?) those lyrics that can only have the proper meaning when sung "in the present tense" by somebody who's fairly young (just the other day, Joni Mitchell's You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio was a topic of conversation). But my main point of puzzlement was not what happened on stage, but what happened in front of it: I've often noticed that quite a few fans who define today's Rolling Stones, not to mention Iggy Pop, as ridiculous (which I find perfectly logical, and understandable), as soon as they are confronted with our heroes, they just stop - as if a "state of need" could give any dignity to mediocre work. Which is really the old way of thinking according to which "selling out cheaply is more ethical than selling out for a lot"; but wouldn't it be better if Brainville 3 sold one of their tracks as a jingle to, say, Toyota? Or that would be considered as "selling out"? (If only there were somebody buying...)

If I said that Daevid Allen "deserves" Brainville 3 I'd give readers the wrong idea. It can be said that Allen - a funny "loony", a "naive" experimentalist, a "loop pioneer" (with thanks to Terry Riley), a "glissando guitarist in space" - made some nice things in the long-distant past (those albums we all know quite well, released under his own name, or by the group Gong, with titles such as Banana Moon, Camembert Electrique, Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg, You, and here we can add a live album of our choice, let's say the one titled Live etc.). But in so differently from, say, Kevin Ayers, a creator of "elementary" songs that can stand quite well on their own, Allen has always needed superb instrumentalists in order to make his (often original) creations go beyond the mere mundane; by sheer force of negation, the real proof here is that, as soon as he thought he could do without them (starting at the time of Euterpe), his music collapsed (let's save issues such as lack of new ideas, etc. for another time).

The tragedy that is this album is all about Hopper and Cutler - or, better said, us. Had these two men ceased developing, and searching, long in the past, just like Allen did, I wouldn't waste my time talking about the whole matter. The sad thing is that Hopper cannot even sell (as a concert proposition) the "user-friendly" but high-quality quartet that recorded the album Numero D'Vol. Talking about Cutler (this is the very short version), when his excellent album titled Solo sank without a trace I thought about Pete Townshend, who, when the Who's I Can See For Miles stalled at N10 in the U.K. charts, said "I spat on the British record buyer".

Cutler's contribution to Trial By Headline is absolutely gigantic, by itself worth of a cover story on Modern Drummer. Strangely, it's Hopper who here appears a bit subdued; much probably, the fact of his playing fewer notes, and with less fuzz and odd harmonics, is due to the fact of his not wanting to interfere with Allen's guitar and vocals, and also not wanting to make Allen's pieces sound harmonically overcrowded; this doesn't mean that Hopper is not easily recognizable as being himself most of the times, however, though I have to admit that in the course of my listening sessions I happened to use my amplifier's volume and tone controls more and more in order to attain the desired clarity.

About Cutler: I have to say it had been a while since the last time I heard him playing so convincingly and forcefully. There's a lot of space to fill here, and he fills it well. Though I suppose that what we hear here is not his personal drumset, his performance on cymbals, on the hi-hat, on the snare drum, with that impossible-to-imitate snare sound, everything here is "state of the art"; it's the toms, instead, which here sound darker than their usual (but here it's the rhythmic subdivisions that are easily recognizable as being his own), also the bass drum, especially on the only track recorded in London. (The CD was recorded almost entirely in 2007 in Berlin, with the only exception of the aforementioned London track, from the same year, and a track recorded the year before at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv.)

The first part of the CD - the first five tracks, that I see as acting almost like a Side One - has long tracks, with nice instrumental interchange. Trial By Headline has Cutler answering accent by accent, throwing the ball back again, and playing melodic phrases on his toms. Dedicated to PQ but she couldn't hear it has new lyrics by Allen, coupled to that famous melodic theme from Soft Machine's Volume II, here with a nice performance from the trio. Ocean Mother has a poem by Allen, echoes and glissando from the guitar. Who's Afraid? is a classic "list song", which will sound terrifying or ridiculous, depending on one's point of view (also what one has ingested?). The long Basement Suite sounds as having been improvised, and sounding not too different from some celebrated pages by the Cutler/Frith duo.

Applause, applause, I bin Stoned Before is the track from the Gong days, here performed with gusto. It's at this point, starting from Return To Basement, that we have the most involving fifteen minutes of this album: all of a sudden we can hear the bass, and the final result, including The Rubiyat Of Honorium Tonsilitisk, reminds one quite a bit of King Crimson's live improvisations, circa 1973, just like Hours Gone, which melodically resembles Pink Floyd, or some ballad by Hawkwind when sung by Dave Brock (even if at some point we have the famous ZAI ZAO MAI MAO from Master Builder to remind us whose record we are listening to). We have a nice, joyous close with Didditagin, which reminds us at the same time (besides, obviously, of Soft Machine) of You Really Got Me by the Kinks, and of that nice cover by (Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera's) 801.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | May 11, 2008