Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Miles Davis
Dark Magus

Released 1977 on CBS-Sony
Reviewed by maningrey, 21/04/2014ce

One of Miles Davis's most celebrated and reviled albums. I can safely say it took me about 8 years to finally warm to it, despite enjoying most of his other funk rock albums from the same time. Even though it features similar tunes and themes used else where in his live concerts from the time there is a sense of darkness and uncertainty to the playing, possibly contributed to by Mile's choosing to add new players to the band in an effort to shake things up. Azar Lawrence and Dominique Gaumont were pretty much thrown to the wolves, basically auditioning on stage. Considering the pressure they do a fine job despite subsequent criticism of their work after the event.

The first disc features a more cohesive line up as Lawrence and Gaumont are not featured. On The Corner veteran Dave Liebman plays with fire despite looking like the least comfortable white man ever to wear a bandana and psychedelic shirt and is a more experienced player than Lawrence. So despite being frank about his lack of empathy with this music and his confusion about what Mile's wanted from him he is a good enough player to make his mark. This CD features the addition of Peter Cosey as lead guitarist and general sonic terrorist. However he had yet to find his feet and in the first disc contributes relatively muted leads and lots of percussion. The first disc is more subtle and the feeling is the band working out what it's strengths are. This is relative though as Miles starts the opening track with a series of searing bleats that sound eerily like a human voice with his wah wah effect and set your hair on end. However this does not mean the music is not heavy and exciting, but the second disc is where is all takes off.

Lawrence and Gaumont play with a desperate intensity, particularly Gaumont who really leaps into the lead guitar spot with tons of wah and fuzz. Oddly I wonder if Cosey was influenced by Gaumont in his later playing and he seem happy to take a back seat to the younger man but later used similar effects in his own playing on the next few albums with Miles. Gaumont gets a lot of criticism for playing in a rather naive Hendrix rip off style but frankly I see little difference between his playing and Cosey's and feel that he makes this album stand out with his unusal contributions. The whole second side kicks up a storm, especially on the final medley "Nne". After a huge electronic freak out there is a very cool percussion break at the end that sounds like The Last Poets and shows the boiling counter rhythms at work (and sometimes lost) in the mix from James Mtume Foreman on congas.

It is odd to discuss a Miles Davis album and hardly mention him but even though his playing is more sparse than on his 1969-71 athletic peak as a player there is never any doubt about who is in charge. In fact the whole music is so soaked in moods and theme Davis had been developing over the last few years that whether he plays trumpet or not each note of the music screams MILES! By this point in his live career he was more of a field marshall, guiding his troops through the storm with brief but pointed interjections. He has been criticised for use of the wah wah because it rendered his famous tone unrecognisable, however with the passing of time his wah wah trumpet moan is now as much a part of his musical iconography and is as recognisable and iconic as John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson's voice. Simply music as notes on a page but depthless in it's historical and textural elements.

A lot of the appeal and criticism of the album is down to the mix which is murky and struggling to contain so much sonic information. This was live music first and foremost and sometimes you feel that a lot is lost by not actually being there, this is a shadow of the actual show but it is the best document we have to actually attending. This is not music made for a studio or made to work within the limitations of getting a good mix and clarity between each instrument. However as our ears, as listeners and music fans, have been expanded by so much music taking inspiration from this era the album becomes more and more listenable.

I prefer this to later cds like Pangaea which while excellent have a cleaner mix which I don't think is as intense. Also by that point Mile's playing was so frail and sad that I prefer his work here which is much more aggressive and funky. Definitely worth getting even if it takes you a decade to enjoy it!

maningrey @ london school of sound

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