Secret Chiefs 3 Book of Horizons: Folio A


“This isn’t Westoxification, this isn’t Drupad — it’s not Ram Naryan, its ROCK!”—Trey Spruance

Any person that attempts to review a Secret Chiefs 3 (SC3) album has their hands full. How does one describe such vast music in a simple blog, and keep that review concise enough to maintain a reader’s attention? Is SC3 classical? No, but it does contain elements of classical music. These elements may not be recognizable to fans of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven, but they do carry the same revolutionary spirit that must have followed those composers in their era. Will SC3 remind a listener of Arab, or Middle Eastern, music?  Yes, but as the guitarist (and leader) of SC3, Trey Spruance, would tell you, if you played SC3 in any Middle Eastern country, “They would consider the music as foreign as your mother and father would.” Is the philosophy of SC3 based on Spruance’s interest in Persian philosophy?  Yes but not directly, as Spurance stated:

secret_chiefs_promo“It solved a philosophical riddle that I had always needed to find an answer to, and Secret Chiefs is the musical expression, the exploration of those thoughts.”  

Is the music similar to the type of music Ennio Morricone used in the soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? Yes, but one cannot listen to SC3 without hearing the evolution, and personalized interpretations, of Morricone’s general ideas.

As Greg Prato, of AllMusic.com, writes, “(SC3) is a combination of Ennio Morricone movie scores, world music, experimental noise-rock, and heavy metal.”{1}

Blake Butler, of Allmusic.com, described SC3 as, “Indian/Asian-sounding melodies overlaid with wildly cavorting, techno rhythms and a tiny bit of metal, infused with a sense of mystery and paranoia from the thematic artwork based on number theory and assumedly Hindu belief systems.” He has also basically said that he didn’t think there would be much of a market for this kind of “skewed version of Indo/Pak music.”{2}

As with most artists, when Trey Spruance is confronted with anyone attempting to classify his creation, he finds such attempts limiting to the total scope of SC3 music. He prefers to refer to SC3 as technologized music, that is contemporary Middle Eastern music, combined with a discernible western influence.

Spruance, as indicated by this War and Peace length explanation of the totality of his vision, has as much difficulty describing the music of SC3 as any reviewer, or blogger. He is either being sardonically complex, when describing his philosophical approach to music, or it is so infused by a multitude of influences that it cannot be condensed to a simple chapter … of War and Peace. {3}

The History

For those unfamiliar with the band(s) Secret Chiefs 3, they arose out of the ashes of the late great Mr. Bungle. They are, basically, Mr. Bungle without lead singer Mike Patton. They are, largely, the work of Mr. Bungle’s guitarist and keyboardist Trey Spruance with the  assistance of two other Chiefs, formerly of Mr. Bungle, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Danny Heifetz.

The reports of the Mr. Bungle’s demise have it that Mike Patton could no longer deal with the work ethic of some of the members (see Spruance) of the band. The reason we can specify Spruance, in our interpretation of these relatively vague Patton complaints, is that Patton worked with Dunn and Heifetz soon after Bungle’s breakup. On that charge, history has vindicated Patton, judging by the number of bands, and the total number of projects Patton has involved himself in in the intervening years, versus those of Spruance.

Spruance, for his part, has argued that while he considers most of Patton’s post-Bungle works to be interesting, quality works, he thinks some of them sounded rushed, and that they probably could’ve been perfected with time. Thus, it could be said that, at the very least, Spruance’s approach to music is more methodical and patient than Patton’s. One has to hope that the breakup of one of the best American bands wasn’t as simple as that, and that doesn’t appear to be the case with Spruance, as he stated that Patton was an egomaniac that wanted everything done his way:

“Patton’s subsequent resentment towards me is a fairly predictable outcome. You don’t stand up to him and stay off his (dung)-list. A bummer, yeah, but it’s essentially a self-protecting reflex action – something I don’t really feel a need to hold against him too much. He has his way. It won’t change.”

That having been said, it appears as though time does, indeed, heal all wounds, as Mike Patton is the vocalist on one of the best tracks of Book of Souls: Folio A: La Chanson de Jacky. This song marks the first time that Patton and Spruance have worked on a released track together since Mr. Bungle’s demise in 2004. It is a cover song of a 1965 Euro song that has a feel –or to use an old, hippie adjective– a vibe that would have fit in quite nicely on Patton’s Mondo Cane.

The wait

Those that loved the SC3 album The Book of Souls: Book of Horizons later learned that it was the first of a trilogy that we assumed would be available later that same year, or soon thereafter.  Patient fans soon began to think that they may not live long enough to see the completion of that trilogy, started in 2004. It appears as though that day has finally arrived, as Folio A is the first part of a two part release that will be followed by the release of Folio B, which Spruance declared to be soon to follow. Longtime fans hope that soon to follow does not amount to another ten years.

“Time scales don’t really apply to Secret Chiefs 3,” Trey Spruance.

Between the two Book of Soul albums, SC3 fans have been treated to a greatest hits album, Path of Most Resistance, a couple EPs, a brilliant soundtrack for a movie-never-made called Le Mani Destre Recise Degli Ultimi Uomini, and an interpretation of John Zorn work’s Xaphan Book 2—The Book of Angels Volume 9. The latter work put to rest any speculation that Zorn and Spruance were still feuding over The Weird Little Boy session. Spruance claimed there was never a feud between the two of them, but that he didn’t care for Zorn’s free form jazz, and that he simply preferred to work in tighter arrangements. This begs the question, had Spruance never heard Zorn’s work, or his style of production, before this project? (Note: Zorn produced Mr. Bungle’s 1991 self-titled debut.) Weird Little Boy was released in 1998, and it is exactly what Spruance complains about: free form, unfocused, and nonsense, music that is John Zorn (and jazz in general) at his worst, in this author’s relatively informed opinion.

The music and philosophy of Book of Souls: Folio A

For those familiar with prior Chiefs’ seven releases, Folio A has that vibe that was originally unearthed in most of the songs on the landmark, Mr. Bungle release California. Spruance, of course, states that the artistic impulses behind SC3’s music began years before Mr. Bungle, but those that are used to reading artists describe their productions, know that very few artists will allow a simple description to go by without, at least, attempting to add some form of complication to it. If the impulses began before Mr. Bungle, it’s safe to say that they saw greater maturity, and probable fruition, during Mr. Bungle, particularly the California sessions.

Longtime listeners hate to admit that they enjoy the familiar sounds on an otherwise complicated barrage of music hitting you over the head, but there are times when a listener needs some sort of familiarity as an introduction to the music. SC3’s version of the Theme from Halloween, titled Personae: Halloween is such an intro for uninformed listeners, and those having a little trouble digesting the complicated Folio A album may want to consider listening to this song as an intro. All of the SC3 songs on the Foilo A album have the IndoPak/Euro feel to them, with an ever present Ennio Morricone feel attached.

There are six short tracks on Folio A that provide elaborate radio station identifier sounds, but it’s the other seven that will probably form the base of long time listening for any fan.

Trey’s careful, methodical approach takes what could be discerned as chaos on first listen, but the music eventually grows on you, until the careful structure comes out on repeated listens. Folio A has a base sound, in other words, but each song depends on the varying approaches brought by each sub-band within the band.  As Spruance describes:

“UR is sort of a rock version of Western tonality, and Traditionalists is more of a cinematic, soundtrack thing, whereas FORMS harks back to an earlier age of Western music, sort of a late romantic era being played by automated machines, band organ, that kind of thing. 

“Ishraqiyn is more the quasi-Pythagorean tonalities, referring to the more Eastern tonal system. Holy Vehm is sort of crushing those things together in a violent collision, and Electromagnetic Azoth is actually the center of the whole thing, distributing all the different tonal systems and sometimes coming out seemingly chaotically, but it’s actually very structured. Electromagnetic Azoth is the band that takes the seed motifs and distributes them to the different bands. So the different band’s tonal approaches are used to reinterpret each motif.”

Seven different bands (six sub-bands), seven different ideas, and seven different approaches to seven different songs, (Ishraqiyn and UR each have two songs on the latest LP) for a unified whole. This could lead to chaos, but as described earlier, Spruance has carefully, and methodically, worked them into a structured umbrella.

Spruance described this approach to Progsphere as such:

“There might be one motif, or ‘theme’ for each of these (songs), a philosophical concept that gets tossed around in the music. It gets redistributed around, think of it like filters or a prism; how a prism reflects different colors, but takes in one force of light that gets refracted, it’s like that. Scattering the lights into different modalities, that’s the best way I could describe it.{4}

In an attempt to describe how he approaches the instruments that he plays throughout all of the SC3 albums, Trey said:

“I’m not really an instrumentalist. I’m more of a composer, so that wasn’t going to be fulfilling to me (to simply play, and progress, with the guitar). So I started studying the musical systems of antiquity to try to understand what made them tick and what they were invoking.”

I don’t know if I’m alone with such concerns, but in the last couple of years I’ve found it relatively depressing to learn how little some of my favorite artists had to do some of their best works. With some artists, it’s obvious how little they had to do with the work that happens to carry their name, but there were others that I always believed had near-dictatorial control of their projects. I found it relatively depressing to learn that some of them came into the studio at the 11th hour and wrote some lyrics, and put some cherries atop the pie. I could list names here, but that isn’t what this is about. It’s more about celebrating the standards set up by those few micromanagers that say that if my name is going to be on it, I’m going to micromanage this thing to death, until it reaches my definition of artistic truth. Spruance, Patton, and John Zorn (other than most of his 20 Book of Angels projects) appear to be these types of artists.

“I feel like I have to take on all of the burden myself; micromanage everything. If you’re going to be putting in a million hours into making this record, if your heart’s not into it, then it’s not going to have any power to it.”

As I said, it’s difficult to review this music. As with most other music, a reviewer can say that when one listens to this music I’m reviewing, they’ll hear a dash of artist A, a mixture of artists B and C, and a heavy dose of artist D. A listener just can’t do that with the Secret Chiefs 3, if their frame of reference is largely western rock. I suppose if one grew up on Morricone, Persian, Arab, and other Middle Eastern music, they could say that it’s derivative, but I would find that surprising. Trey has said that his audience is all over the map, logistically, and demographically, but I have a hard time believing that young westerners, that prize rebellion from parental concerns for their musical identity, will find much appealing in SC3’s music. I’m guessing that the majority of Sc3’s demographic is composed of forty-somethings that are tired of all the usual music out there. For it’s not music that will tick off anyone’s parents, but it may cause them to worry about their child’s mental stability after they close the door and crank it.

{1} http://www.allmusic.com/album/second-grand-constitution-and-bylaws-hurqalya-armarillo-mw0001016363

{2} http://www.allmusic.com/album/book-m-mw0000591048

{3} http://www.markprindle.com/spruance-i.htm

{4}http://www.prog-sphere.com/interviews/an-interview-with-trey-spruance-of-secret-chiefs-3/#sthash.7E1f9dF5.dpuf

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