Sir Richard Bishop takes you to exotic lands, no language classes required
About one minute into "Blood-Stained Sands," the final track on Sir Richard Bishop's latest, The Freak of Araby (Drag City), a pair of Moroccan chanter horns accelerate from slow drones and begin to thread together as if moving into an frenetic abstract jazz run. In the background, hand drums and other percussion provide a lithe, rustling tempo, less pushing the chanters forward than occupying the space behind them, as if a large expanse over which these two buzzing insects chase each other. Even without reading the title, the music conjures an image of the desert at night, the feeling of being in the presence of a massive, ineffable space that dwarfs all other forms of life. It's a consciousness trapdoor you may have fallen into if you've ever spent anytime wandering around the American Southwest or arid portions of the western states. And it's but one of the 10 mental mindscapes the half-Lebanese Bishop and his bandmates paint through this disarmingly accessible album.
It's disarming only because Araby is and isn't the sort of exercise in straightforward sincerity that you'd expect from Bishop, whose career is less a steady flowing river than a delta of tributaries and eddies that sprawls across ideas and sounds. In the past five years, he has emerged as somewhat of an underground guitar hero--complete with a November 2007 Guitar Player profile and an interview by Six Orders of Admittance's Ben Chasny in Fretboard Journal--on the strength of a string of solo acoustic guitar albums and some of the most active touring in his entire career. A healthy dose of record-buying nerds and out-music heads, though, know Bishop as one-third of the music-as-mind-expansion-and-performance-art group the Sun City Girls. For 25 years, the Girls released album after amazingly bent album of globe-trotting/inner-space-traveling sounds, until the untimely death of drummer Charles Gocher in 2007. The band is no more, although it recorded so much material that it is still cranking out recordings on its Abduction imprint, such as the recently released Napoleon and Josephine (Sun City Girls Singles Volume 2). It toured rarely, but it nevertheless profoundly articulated its identity through its music and albums.
SCG album artwork and associated ephemera disclosed an interest in magick, esoteric knowledge, and exotic ephemera. Its song titles revealed well-read and learned men with a sly sense of humor (viz. Live From Planet Boomerang's "You Could Be Making History and We're Already Forgetting You"). And its music--well, musically is where the band seemed to bring all of its member's disparate interests into play, as so many sounds and cultures and ideas passed through it. The band members played bass, drums, and guitar, but what they did with them was intentionally not rock 'n' roll music: Sometimes snatches of something that sounded and felt Indonesian or North African or Civil War-era or outer space would float through and give the band an indelible whiff of the otherworldly. It was a punk-rock trio creating un-compartmentalized culture.
That contact with the other is what stands out most in Bishop's solo work. The insouciant sense of humor (see 2007's anti-Clapton smack While My Guitar Violently Bleeds) remains, as does an enigmatic esoteric streak, but musically Bishop's output as Sir Richard Bishop reveals a musical lifetime immersed in many sounds informing and shaping his musical ideas. Ever since his 1998 solo debut Salvador Kali, Bishop has refined and explored an dizzying amalgam of what sound like African, Indian, and Eastern European sounds, rhythms, and textures.
This decade, however, has witnessed an underground explosion of solo guitar artists. With them, the critical vocabulary for talking about such music has both expanded and narrowed, as it feels like the more points of comparison that enter the discussion--the Chet Atkins this, the Django Reinhart gypsy-like that, the Les Paul something or other, the inevitable John Fahey name drop--the less such words say anything about the music at all.
Furthermore, some critics are sharp enough to hear a certain guitar technique and accurately say what is being done--or, for that matter, pick out alternate tunings by ear, recognize different effects, and cite what non-Western country that a specific chord sequence or scale represents. The writer you're reading is not one of them. What makes one rhythm more Indian than Arabic? What classifies one set of oud-sounding guitar lines as specifically Moroccan? No idea. And that's OK: Sometimes listening to an album is like walking into a room blindfolded, trusting musicians to guide you as they may.
And on Araby, Bishop and company--he plays with a band for the first time since the Girls--take you on an intoxicating tour of Arabic music, resulting in Bishop's most singularly focused solo outing. The album itself is a bit of an ode to one of Bishop's favorite guitarists--the late Omar Khorshid, the Egyptian musician and actor who died in a car accident in 1981--and as such the album includes a few tunes associated with Khorshid (Mohamed Abdel Wahab's "Enta Omri," Elias Rahbani's "Ka'an Azzaman," the traditional "Sidi Mansour"). Bishop plays electric guitar this time out, joined by a bassist and two drummers, and everybody is given playfully Arabic-sounding names, such as Bishop's "Rasheed Al-Qahira."
Lead track "Taqasim for Omar"--taqasim being an Arabic improvisation structure--features a serene if mournful series of solo guitar segments, recalling Salvador Kali's reverential euphoria. From there, Araby moves into lithe, excitable territory. "Enta Omri" starts off in a subdued duet between guitar and bass before setting off at a skipping pace, with Bishop's guitar scattering high-end notes along the rhythm as if a painter dotting a landscape painting with flying birds. The sinewy guitar line in "Solenzara" dances between the a shaking percussive pulse and a slowly trotting bass. And the galloping "Kaddak el Mayass" feels like a lively night of conversation at the café, where the cups of strong coffee and tobacco in the hookah never end.
Bishop's own pieces nicely flow with these Arabic songs. "Barbary" moves like a horse-drawn carriage at full sprint, with cymbal splashes and jittery percussions chasing Bishop's lithe guitar. Bishop cools off a bit in the meditative "The Pillars of Baalbek," and then he takes you deep into the desert night with the aforementioned "Blood-Stained Sands," a transformative piece of music. When the pounding drums come in to underscore the Moroccan chanters' sky-streaking calls, it's the sort of ground-shifting brain shove that causes the knees to buckle. Throughout, Bishop celebrates a music that obviously sounds dear to his heart, and The Freak of Araby becomes a veritable excursion through North Africa and the Middle East--not as good as being there by a long shot, but offering 45 minutes of encouragements to book a flight and discover it for yourself.
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