Around the time of Mr. Bungle’s looming hiatus at the beginning of the 2000s, my interest had really gained momentum in this radically different group. It was a side project of vocal warlord Mike Patton, making progressive, genre-hopping compositions that blew my young mind. Their sound ranged from carousel clowns themes and the stuff nightmares are made of, hyperactive ska and porno music, through to catchy funk, punk, tribal, electro and even Beach Boys-style numbers (as if that made sense). Two tunes stuck with me –“Ars Moriendi” and “Desert Search for Techno Allah.” Both songs were terrifyingly good multi-genre pieces possessed by an exotic Middle Eastern tone. They were also strong evidence of guitarist Trey Spruance’s writing genius, harnessing what has become his personal project over the last 19 years: Secret Chiefs 3. Over 19 years and nine studio albums, Secret Chiefs 3 has reflected Spruance’s musical beliefs as well as his philosophical and spiritual ones. Though this avant-garde world music creature has flown around the globe many times, never had I the opportunity to experience Secret Chiefs 3 until the band decided to nestle in the bosom of eclectic gig organizer Baba Yaga’s Hut for three unique evenings.
Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle is located down a narrow service alley otherwise used for goods inwards and entry to the rail services. There isn’t even a sign for the venue itself, creating a little buzz for each punter lined up for what they feel to be a cult experience. The interior is a bit nostalgia inducing. Did you ever have a friend whose dad built a bar in his garage, then gave up and let black t-shirted adolescents take it over? That’s the interior – untreated planks of ply-board to serve drinks from. All it needs are wood-shavings littered about the floor. The ceiling of the place has exposed corrugated metal, partially concealed by loose draping material. Add some audio equipment and it’s a creative space wet dream for a moody youth band. That said, some highly regarded acts have performed in this shed and it is perfect for people who despise the livestock barricades of major festivals. Here, the band literally needs to tap you on the shoulder just to make their way to the stage…
Which is exactly what Trey Spruance had to do for three nights on September 9-11th, 2014. Dressed in a hooded cloak of Pythagorean stars, he shuffled past folks and lifted himself onto the stage, and then into a high-backed office chair whose very presence had earlier been the topic of many questions. As his heavy-booted right foot navigated effect pedals, Spruance’s left was clad in plaster for reasons unknown to us, his mystic goatee hanging beneath an upbeat smile. In the lead up, he had promised a showcase of what is known as Secret Chiefs 3’s ‘satellite groups’: sub-division bands flying under the same flag but specializing in certain styles that appear on their recordings. The first night featured Ishraqiyun and FORMS, the second featured UR and the music of Xaphan (by sax machine mentor John Zorn) and the third featured one long uninterrupted set of the SC3 oeuvre – past, present, and future.
The band, which has morphed over the years from Bungle all-stars to talented collaborators from near and far, was this time made up of Timba Harris on violin/guitar/trumpet, Toby Driver on 5-string bass, Matt Lebofsky on keys/guitar and drummer Kenny Grohowski, all dressed in matching monk-outfits and squashed quite tightly on the puny stage.
Watch “The 4 (Great Ishraqi Sun)” – Secret Chiefs 3 / Ishraqiyun
So what about the sound? What ensued was like pure alchemy. A lot of Secret Chiefs 3’s most concise work comes from the 2004 album, Book of Horizons. The most exciting to identify were Ishraqiyun’s Persian and Arabic led compositions, swooping in like whirling dervishes, begat by Trey’s fascinating hybrid guitars – one, an elegantly-shaped 6 stringed bouzouki/saz/whatever, and the other a 10-stringed ‘Junkyard’ guitar. Each instrument created an entrancing effect accompanied by gypsy fiddle parts and danceable tambourine percussion backing on tracks such as “The 4 (Great Ishraqi Sun)” and “Tistrya.” FORMS represented varied film soundtrack orchestrations that could be admired for their intricacies, interspersed with fast and hard rock pieces which could send you flying backwards. The satellite UR tune, “Book T: Exodus” began the second and third nights with a lone trumpet scoring mages of brave mercenaries riding off into the sunset before dropping into an impossibly catchy Shadows-esque surf rock number. The song “Anthropomorphosis: Boxleitner” had a space-prog vibe about it.“Shoel” and “Omael” from the album Xaphan possessed more of the eastern groove, consisting of a strong percussion/violin style with the addition of captivating psychedelic organ parts, all the while building to strong crescendos.
What lingered longest in all of this was the intensity. There were tunes which almost came off like jams, but precision changes to punk or metal passages defied such logic. Spruance would sit casually in front of his twin reverb playing lighting fast riffs, sweat dripping from under his hood. Cymbals would shatter overhead; rumbling fills and double-kicks would have me going from nodding my head to jerking my entire body in rhythmic spasm. In fact, during a more electronic-themed track, Kenny Grohowski’s astounding drum-work escalated to the kind of hard break-beats you would expect from a Venetian Snares gig. A true stroke of genius must be said of FORMS’ completely unexpected rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” hilariously faithful to Sousa’s original score. By the looks on their faces, it was obviously something the entire band enjoys treating their audience to.
When my body was thrown clear each night, despite my taking precaution of bringing earplugs, the enthusiasm of experiencing SC3 to the maximum still sent me home with ringing ears and full-body fatigue. What felt like a moshing in a nightclub was actually my peers and me rocking out intensely in our own space. Yet the Chiefs were able to take all audience members on an instrumental carpet ride – they could make one feel as if they were floating down the Ganges with their melodies, then reach crescendos comparable to the sensation of being eaten alive by a thousand scarab beetles. It was the most epic movie you had seen all year combined with the best holiday you have had in ages, and it is definitely something worth waiting to experience again.