1/ Lizard Eyes (Last Exit) 5.30 2/ Don't Be a Cry Baby, Whatever You Do (Last Exit) 6.35 3/ So Small, So Weak, This Body (Last Exit) 4.25 Sweat of Loving 4/ Headfirst Into the Flames (Last Exit) 3.00 5/ A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows (Last Exit) 6.25 6/ Jesus! What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are (Last Exit) 11.01 7/ Hanged Men Are Always Naked (Last Exit) 10.05 8/ No One Knows Anything (Last Exit) 5.15 9/ I Must Confess I'm a Cannibal (Last Exit) 10.40 Recorded in Stockholm, Sweden and Munich, Germany in 1989 Final Production by Robert MussoSonny Sharrock: guitar; Peter Brotzmann: bass saxophone; Bill Laswell: basses; Ronald Shannon Jackson: drums.
1993 - MuWorks (USA), MU1013 (CD) 2008 - DMG/ARC (USA), DMG/ARC 701 (CD)
I probably wouldn’t like them but I was raised on the stuff. My youngest brother is the jazz equivalent of that guy who can’t find food spicy enough for his flame-jaded palate, and who eats peppers that would turn your mouth into a crematorium. And he deviously subjected me to increasingly atonal noise music, slowly ratcheting up the dissonance until Albert Ayler sounded tame and the hardest rebop sounded like Glenn Miller.
Last Exit, which included the legendary Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Bill Laswell on 6-string bass, Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, and Peter Brötzmann on bass saxophone, formed in 1986 and dissolved in 1994, following the death of Sharrock. During that time they recorded a lot of music that was loud and confrontational, and appealed not only to jazzbos but also to more adventurous hardcore fans, to the point where they got labeled punk jazz. Critic Greg Kot wrote that they worked at a level of “volume and violence that makes most rock bands sound tame,” which is an understatement if ever I’ve heard one. Me, I like to think of them as the Butthole Surfers of Skronk.
1993’s Headfirst into the Flames: Live in Europe is a primo example of what they did best, namely amaze and appall you at the same time. The title says it all; from opener “Lizard Eyes” to closer “I Must Confess I’m a Cannibal” they bring the noise, melting minds along the way. “Lizard Eyes” is one atonal tune; forget about melody, what they’re interested in on this one is producing raw noises that they then commence to rub up against one another. Sharrock plays some amazing guitar of the sort that would have caused Jimi Hendrix’s jaw to drop, while Brötzmann produces a prodigious din on the sax. Jackson, well, he’s a miracle in motion, the greatest living drummer in the world, and as for Laswell—formerly the bassist of Material—he’s in there somewhere, no doubt doing something brilliant that I’m too deaf to hear. You can certainly hear him on follow-up “Don’t Be a Cry Baby Whatever You Do,” a more melodic foray into what could almost be called rock. Sharrock plays scribbles while Brötzmann squeals and squonks until he’s up there in the stratosphere, the rest of the band far below. Meanwhile Jackson is all over his kit like white on the KKK, the song slows and Brötzmann returns to the helm, doing things with his sax that I suspect are illegal in many countries, and Sharrock shreds, then slows to play descending single notes. And then the song fades out.
“So Small, So Weak, This Bloody Sweat of Loving” is a blistering guitar rave-up, and a showcase for Sharrock’s ability to mix feedback and distortion while playing fast enough to be arrested for speeding on the autobahn. This is Hendrix times ten, and quite listenable even after the band comes in, playing a crushing rhythm that Sharrock rides roughshod over, nearly burying Brötzmann’s sax. Meanwhile, the LP’s title track is fast-paced and features Brötzmann blowing hard and zooming along, while Laswell and Jackson provide a stellar bottom. Laswell in particular sticks out, and while I have trouble hearing him Sharrock is no doubt in there—wait, here he is, adding his guitar, until the song comes to a squealing end.
“A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” opens on a slow and civil note with Jackson’s drumming and Sharrock’s guitar, but grows more dissonant as Laswell takes off for parts unknown and Sharrock plays some slow but dissonant guitar. This one reminds me a bit of U.S. Maple, at least until Brötzmann enters to up the ante on the noise quotient. This is ensemble playing at its best—everyone somehow manages to do whatever they want while making the song cohere. Brötzmann is in a particularly ferocious mood, but he calms down when the song does to shoot it out with an equally vehement Sharrock. Meanwhile Laswell performs miracles on the bass, and the song gets wilder and wilder until you swear your hair will catch on fire, with Sharrock totally out there and Brötzmann following suit. Then Jackson slaps the drums about for a couple of seconds, and the song ends.
“Jesus! What Gorgeous Monkeys We Are” is more than just a great song title—it opens as a kind of bass-heavy blues, then Jackson plays some rolls and in and out comes Brötzmann, leaving Jackson to play a solo. Then Brötzmann returns, while Sharrock plays space rock on his guitar and Jackson keeps the rhythm nailed to the floor. And things from there on just get crazier, with Jackson performing miracles alongside Laswell for a while, after which Sharrock plays some of the most-strung out guitar I’ve ever heard. He’s a good five stones from the sun on this one, his guitar tone as scratchy as a three-day beard, and how Laswell keeps up with him I’ll never know. After that Brötzmann comes in to play a halting and woebegone solo while Sharrock fires off strange single notes behind him, after which the pace picks up and we’re back in free jazz heaven, with Sharrock’s guitar sounding like a guy climbing a ladder while Jackson speed riffs on the drums and Brötzmann blows and blows, a man intent on breaking through a wall that only he sees.
“Hanged Men Are Always Naked” opens with Jackson and Laswell pummeling repetitively away while Sharrock shoots off sparks behind them. Then it stops, restarts, and Sharrock returns to playing the most fucked-up guitar I’ve ever heard. Then Brötzmann comes in, and the tempo slows, and Jackson plays like a normal human drummer for a change while Laswell spazzes out in a corner. Meanwhile Brötzmann’s sax is going from frenetic to borderline sane, as he alternates squonks with almost traditional little moments of solace for your average bebop fan. As for Sharrock he’s shredding away, that is until he begins to play zip gun guitar to the accompaniment of Jackson and Laswell, after which Brötzmann comes in to play some straight-ahead shit while Sharrock continues to produce quirky alien noises. Meanwhile, “No One Knows Anything” opens with Brötzmann and some unknown someone playing some straight-up free jazz on their horns, with Sharrock joining in to play some ear-splitting guitar. A slow tune, this one, and far more civil than Last Exit’s usual fare, that is until Laswell comes in with some rumbling bass and Sharrock proceeds to kick ass on guitar. It all holds together wonderfully, what with Sharrock playing great sheets of noise and Brötzmann blowing away, reaching for the higher registers, while Jackson beats the tar out of his drums.
Album closer “I Must Confess I’m a Cannibal” opens in a frenzy, then slows down for Sharrock to play some raw neo-blues that dissolve into free-form chaos. Then Jackson takes over, playing a solo that actually doesn’t horrify me the way drum solos almost always do, after which Brötzmann comes in, blowing sinuous circles around the band until Sharrock joins in to play for a short while. Then the song stops and restarts and now they’re playing something akin to rock’n’roll, with Jackson keeping a steady beat and Sharrock turning it up to play some knock down, drag out, neo-metal. Then he commences to solo with Laswell and Jackson holding down the fort behind him, and to all you folks who are partial to Frank Zappa or John Meyer, I recommend that you give this one a listen. Sharrock will school you. Meanwhile Brötzmann has come back in, the tempo slows, and the song fades out, and it sounds much shorter than its 10-plus minute length.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Last Exit produced a species of music that offered rock fans an adventurous alternative to even the most violent and difficult rock music. This is the sound that Captain Beefheart heard in his dreams, when his dreams were good, and give it a chance and I guarantee it will open the door to a whole new sound. All it asks is that you grow new ears, develop a whole new musical vocabulary, and buy a pith helmet. Because if you’re going to go to where the wild things are, you’ll need it.
GRADED ON A CURVE: A
Michael H. Little (courtesy of the The Vinyl District website)