Hearing songs and albums in a circular, cyclical fashion and relating them comfortably to what has gone before is a part of how our lovely little brains have been conditioned. It’s also how we tend to write about them – our conclusions tied, often tenuously, to our propositions, our pre-existing notions fortified by even more tenuous “proof” torn from the canvas of the music and patched together to prop up our pre-conceived ideas. With improvised, or maybe more accurately “free” music, you don’t necessarily get that set of boundaries or easy reference points. Mike Watt’s The Hand To Man Band perform just that kind of music – loosely it’s jazz-based experimentia with deeply sinister undertones – but there’s no circuitous, easy route into it, back out of it, or a frame of reference to overlay upon it to ease understanding. It’s fucking weird, right?
Ghosts of low voice race through a dark, spare hallway of beaten bass and fractured, fractious drum. Dawn breaks on that and a rushing jazz push of piano emerges, snare and bass punching out in various directions, dragging with them frantic horns, a little feedback drone. When the electro skronk hits alongside metronomic shakers the moment feels unified – but sharply fractures once more, a buzzing, darting stream of consciousness never able to settle for more than a few bars. Forward-leaning bass tangles with beat poetry and processed alien handclaps while we take a beating from a grinding guitar.
A dying, celebrating animal squeals for a few seconds, notes and harmony are chased and lost in passing seconds – as soon as you recognise what you’re hearing it’s gone. Spider sounds build to yelps, saddled with the spattered spit of glossolalia – we’re frightened and it’s fun. Hey! A melodic guitar strum, a tuneful refrain – luckily the broken keys kick the peg firmly away from the hole. Still, that one was more friendly than his mates.
The sound of a room full of instruments, self aware, all attempting to drown one another. It’s the soundtrack to a Russian reinterpretation of Fantasia, mops replaced by clanking chains and a cracked sax. Is it a trial? Nah, oppressive sure but it’s damn worth doing. Vocals at wild variance wash through a squall of sound, there’s a growl of low-end horror (this feel and sound prevail) and there’s a brief feeling of actual intention – they want us to feel suffocated as the track elongates and stretches through the ears, across the mouth.
There’s no breath, a spaced ’70s twinkle twists into a psych roll that launches itself off the cliff as it concludes, then a saloon bar swagger degenerates into a lengthy blipfest, a robot disassembling itself as the world burns. There’s a sweetly voiced nightmare now. Insistent sound set against petrified voice, your teeth set firmly on edge. Tough, tough stuff with a sweet sticky dark centre. In the trail-out an arrhythmic cat castrates itself with a plastic hammer. Let’s lie down.
Brief horn bursts and a vocal slur. We’re worn to a musical nub. Driven, driving bass loops bash heads with Christmas bells and throat-ripping screams. Lastly there’s a holding, swaying drift of melody. The beast dies out, kicking as it goes, a squeal and a bass string prodded to the bittersweet end.
There’s intuition, a splash of magic and some greatness of delivery here between Watt, Silver Jew Tim Barnes, John Dietrich of Deerhoof and Nels Cline collaborator Thollem McDonas. It’s no American indie indulgence, it’s the straight strange path straight out of standard sound and off, beautiful and ugly into somewhere other.