John Cale & Terry Riley - Church Of Anthrax

John Cale & Terry Riley
Church Of Anthrax

Released 1970 on CBS
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 09/11/2000ce

This album is where John Cale connected full-circle with the classical avant-garde background which he had bought with him to The Velvet Underground. Terry Riley had by this time established himself as one of the prime movers in New York’s then-nascent Minimalist scene. Prior to The Velvet Underground Cale had been an integral member of The Theatre Of Eternal Music, along with La Monte Young, Marion Zazeela and Tony Conrad. What little has been heard of The Theatre Of Eternal Music (thanks to Young’s continuing suppression of the recorded output of this era) proves the common-held belief that it was Cale who bought the noise element to The Velvet Underground.

This album marks a cross-pollination. Cale may have been returning to his Minimalist roots, but he still had the sound of VU’s white noise ringing in his ears and as a consequence managed to produce a brilliantly messy, repetitious rock record. Early Minimalism had much in common with rock anyway: the ensembles which Philip Glass and Steve Reich were establishing, as well as the previously-mentioned Theatre Of Eternal Music, resembled rock groups as much as they did traditional classical ensembles.

This collaboration wasn’t all plain-sailing, however. Cale reports that after much of the album had been completed Riley visited the studio where Cale had been producing the material and on hearing what Cale had done to the tapes walked out in disgust and would have nothing more to do with the project. Thank goodness Cale continued with the production job, because ‘Church Of Anthrax’ is a classic of circular, improvised rock. The nasty title says it all: This is no intellectual trip. It’s direct and corporeal music.

A drone which sounds like distant, ancient and ritualistic animal-horn trumpets in just-intonation starts the massive title track at the beginning of side one. A big bass guitar starts a street-walking groove over the top. Drums crash in, settling into a loose, rocking gallop. A truly strange, stabbed organ chord starts to repeat in a cyclical mantra. An organ line alternates between Riley’s fast and furious style and Cale’s streetwise groove. Riley’s sax machine-gun’s notes at the listener. All of these elements continue for what seems like an eternity of trying to make themselves the dominant sound by constantly modulating in a surprisingly subtle way. In fact this track stands comparison with the battling instruments-turned-up-to-11 of ‘Sister Ray’, but without so much of the sheer volume or the speed-psychosis edginess. It all starts to fall apart as atonal guitar crashes in and the whole thing suddenly deflates, the drone descending and sounding like a WW2 fighter-plane going d-o-w-n. A reverbed-to-fuck sax drone finishes us off, and we’re left gasping for air. And we get it: ‘The Hall Of Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles’ is light and airy, but not in the fey senses of either word. It’s just Cale on piano and Riley on sax, but it sounds like a small orchestra, as repeated sections seem to tumble off into infinite reflections of themselves. Cale’s piano is repetitive, but calmed to an oceanic roll. Riley goes off on fractal journeys with his fingers a-blur. The track is a beautiful, soothing respite after the assault of ‘Church Of Anthrax’.

The second side of the album starts with a complete change of atmosphere. ‘The Soul of Patrick Lee’ is a more conventional but beautiful, folky song. It’s place on this album seems initially perplexing, but it makes total sense in the way ‘Femme Fatale’ being on the same album as ‘European Son’ makes sense. It’s a gorgeous sing-along evocation of Chaucerian England complete with a New Seekers backing vocal. The lead vocal is sung by a friend of Cale, Adam Miller, though why he bothered to use another vocalist is a mystery, because his voice sounds exactly like Cale’s! Then we’re back in more experimental territory with the huge ‘Ides Of March’ which starts with a strange loop which is suddenly interrupted by an improvised piano meandering over an ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ insistent, repetitive piano stab. The drums seem to be skittering all over the place, but closer listening reveals that the changes repeat several times before changing again. The meandering piano starts to get stuck in grooves along with the drums. This stuff is raw and hurtles towards you drunkenly. Bum notes are stuck with until they’re no longer bum! Both drummer and pianist are listening to each other and playing in total sympathy. ‘The Protégé’ ends the album with rolling drums which are just on the florid side of a Moe Tucker groove. Guitar and bass re-appear and Cale bashes his piano once more in a New York street hustle. You can almost hear the sound of traffic, car horns and shouting taxi drivers. Then, almost as a wink at his Velvet past, the album is cut off by a sudden screech of feedback.

This album is a fantastically raw piece of music which is unlike any of Cale’s other solo albums. It also has an strange ancient-ness to it comparable to Amon Düül II’s ‘Phallus Dei’. The combination of its general lack of conventional song structure and its street-suss edge makes it rank alongside much of what was being produced in Germany at the time, in that it was pushing the limits of rock music’s sound in a similar direction. Cale’s comment that “‘Anthrax’ is just an improvised gig with Terry” shows that he himself may not have regarded it as a particularly important album. However, it stands up as an inspired exercise in minimalist rock music.

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