Rhys Chatham - Die Donnergotter

Rhys Chatham
Die Donnergotter

Released 1989 on Homestead Records
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 17/08/2001ce

“For an art music audience, both 'Guitar Trio' and 'Drastic Classicism' were vigorous new strains of overtone-based minimalism, lyrical in content and structurally austere, which synthesized two different musics to arrive at a striking new form (…) what the musicians in my ensemble were hearing as a kind of viscous, gelatinous sphere of shimmering overtones, the rock community heard as an ear shattering wall-of-sound (…) Everyone heard the pieces in a different way.”
Rhys Chatham

Rhys Chatham’s work comes from the same school of composition as Glenn Branca, in that both these American composers have attempted to marry the serious so-called ‘art music’ of 20th Century composition (more specifically Minimalism) to that of rock’s guitar thrash. To my ears (which belong more to the latter camp described in the quote above) this is an heroic attempt to get music that appeals to the mind to fuse with music that appeals to the body. Neu!’s description of their own output as ‘music for mind and pants’ is equally apt here.

The whole of the first side of this record is filled with the huge title track ‘Die Donnergötter’ (The Thunder Gods). Composed between 1984-86 for an ensemble of six electric guitars, bass and drums (ie: an expansion of the classic rock line-up) this piece is conducted by Chatham himself. Now, what you have read so far may lead you to think that this music is going to sound dry, cerebral and muted - a diluted rock music. Far from it! Chatham is no academic just trying to pick up a bit of rock cred. A precocious student of La Monte Young, he was also getting involved in the No-Wave groups in an active way, rather than vicariously hoping some of their fire would touch him. This is the real deal; music that rocks out, and proves that the form can withstand serious analysis and fusion with intellectual ideas without losing its visceral, head-banging nature. The track starts with what sounds like one of those long single chord strumming passages Sonic Youth love so much, drums and cymbals crashing around to make you feel as if you’ve walked into the room at the end of a monster riff-out rock song. The crescendo stops, then starts again, slowly speeding up to break into a bouncy Düsseldorfer workout. This is dancy rock with a great big stoned grin on its face. The Neu! comparison above isn’t merely appropriate as far as the music’s statement of intent goes, it extends to the actual sound of much of this record. Imagine the first Neu! album with expanded sound, and multi-layered guitars, played a bit more precisely and you’re halfway there. However the expansion to six guitars has an incredible effect. Cute lead guitar lines chime away over the ringing drones of the other guitars. Some of this might sound like an ethereal and almost esoteric music, but Chatham has made sure that a coherent and pleasing musical development is apparent: “(…) a primary interest in the making of ‘Die Donnergötter’ was the special emphasis and importance on its melodic content”. Importantly the drumming never lets the noise float off into la-la gibber-land either. The drums are rock-thug grounded, cliché drum-fills ‘n’ all, and propel the guitars on with little feeling for their more nebulous tendencies. And yes, I did use the word ‘noise’ in the last sentence: this is the trailer-trash hick cousin to Steve Reich’s speccy, beret-wearing ‘Electric Counterpoint’. Chatham is no fan of clean-sounding guitars: He cranks them right up. The guy’s exposure to his own works have given him tinnitus in both ears, for Gawdsake. However, this is an enormously listener-friendly piece of music which entices you to bounce along with its constant variations on the last 15 seconds of every great rock song you’ve heard. It even sneeks an Oh Yeah Can slight return motif in there before staggering towards a conclusion, leaving the guitars’ decay ringing in the ears.

‘Waterloo, No.2’ (1986), the first track on Side 2, took me longer to get into than anything else on this album, simply because it lacks the rock drive of either of the other tracks. Scored for brass and drums - he’d temporarily stopped composing for guitar at this time due to hearing loss, and was playing trumpet as a cure for impotence(!) - this piece uses complex military drum phrasing, which I initially found incredibly irritating (I generally concur with Stockhausen’s dislike of marching music). However, repeated listening reveals strange psycho-acoustic effects. It first sounds like a daydreaming military tattoo, but the trumpets and trombones soon start to sound like harmonising car alarms, occasionally allowing the show-off drummer a solo. It does sound like a Minimalist homage to Charles Ives and is an interesting contrast to the other two pieces here, but from a rock perspective the following track is a blessed relief.

The last track is ‘Guitar Trio’. On the sleeve Chatham states: “Composed in 1977, ‘Guitar Trio’ was the first musical composition to make use of multiple electric guitars to merge the extended-time music of the sixties and seventies with serious hard rock.” In contrast to ‘Die Donnergötter’s explicit, notated musical progression, this earlier piece relies on perceived shifts in overtones for it’s melodic movement, creating a disorientating and narcotic effect. Chatham has used tunings which create collisions of notes and stroboscopic effects which sound like the aural equivalent of Op Art. Single chord springy guitar strumming is accompanied by Krautbeat drumming. When the bass comes in we’re off on a long desert drive of shimmering single chord riffing from three differently tuned guitars, which slowly layer over each other riffing in time with the driving drums which insistently motorik away. In such apparently arid terrain subtle heat-haze shimmering overtones emerge, entrance and seduce. Every time the drums go on a roll we’re in rock-crescendo heaven. This is an ingenious take on three-chord rock: Three guitars and three guitarists with one chord each, riffing away with music-stands in front of them. The endless crescendo effect is something you have to give in to, and once it has started to wash over you you’re in a rock reverie.

John Cale’s ‘Academy in Peril’ may have dragged chamber and orchestral music into the rock/pop song form, but the title is a far more apt description of what Chatham has done here. This is scored music using classical forms, but it’s simultaneously waving its hair in your face and tugging at your crutch with the insistence of a randy groupie. If academicians were going to feel their ivory towers threatened by anything surely it would be the sound of this racket shaking their concert-halls’ foundations.

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