Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Doctor Nerve's "LOUD"

Last year was a busy one for guitarist-composer-programmer extraordinaire Nick Didkovsky, with two releases on his Punos Music label -- Vomit Fist's Omnicide (short, sharp shocks of black metal fury from a trio in which he plays with his drummer son) and CHORD II (sophomore outing from a duo with Tom Marsan in which they explore the pure sonic possibilities of loud, distorted electric guitars) -- garnering "best of year" nods from around the blogosphere. Now he's starting 2020 with the first new music in a good while from Doctor Nerve, the heavy prog outfit he's led since 1983.

When I say "prog," I mean Canterbury or Rock In Opposition rather than something that'd come packaged in a Roger Dean cover (not that there's anything wrong with that; I anxiously await the imminent arrival of The Wire scribe/Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes' latest tome A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock and the 1970s). Didkovsky has the bona fides, having collaborated with both Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (in the long distance power trio Bone) and Henry Cow mainstay Fred Frith (as a member of Frith's Guitar Quartet).

Doctor Nerve uses rock instrumentation -- your basic guitar-bass-drums trio (including a rhythm section that can probably read flypaper) with a concert virtuoso on piano and a four-piece horn section whose members can all solo -- to achieve classical dynamics. The result brings to fruition everything Zappa and Beefheart promised (minus the silly FZ shit), but is more brutally visceral. Their pinnacle of raw intensity was 1995's Skin -- until now.

LOUD lives up to its name, and it's clearly been made with those who appreciate The Romance of the Artifact in mind: colored vinyl, stunning cover/poster artwork by Masato Okano, an insert illustration by the aforementioned Marsan (whose artwork graced Nerve's debut LP Out To Bomb Fresh Kings), and a back cover photo collage that pays homage to Humble Pie's Rockin' the Fillmore and Queen's debut LP. The tracks began life on an unmastered, tour-only CD-R, but for LOUD, Didkovsky re-cut all his guitar parts and had the material re-mixed and mastered for maximum impact. Bonus tracks on the CD and download include alternate versions of all the tunes with Didkovsky's guitar solos replaced by heavy friends including Henry Kaiser, Mike Kenneally (about to hit the road with a Zappa repertory band, opening for King Crimson!), Robert Musso, Frith Guitar Quartet bandmate Rene Lussier, and others equally dextrous.

At the top of Side One, "If You Were Me Right Now, I'd Be Dead" opens with a pummeling riff and bass clarinetist Michael Lytle's vocal and instrumental approximations of Godzilla screams, giving way to a solo by Didkovsky that's both tortuous and richly detailed, before the horn section takes it away with ascending polyphony and incandescent trombone and trumpet solos. "Painting With Bullets" puts free jazz in a blender with technical metal, and the results are scrumptious, particularly when Didkovsky unleashes a solo that skirts the edges of tonality.

Turning the record over, "Meta 04" is the album's most RIO-like item, featuring tempos that shift like a drunken boat and Yves Duboin's most striking soprano sax work here, leading into Didkovsky's wild, feedback-fueled ride over a choppy ostinato that reminds me of something from Lick My Decals Off, Baby. "Uses Probe Form" is a mesh of complex, interlocking parts that, after a particularly fine trombone solo (kudos, Benjamin Herrington), locks into a groove section that overlays the chant from "A Love Supreme" on the beat from Captain Beefheart's "Click Clack." (Interesting coincidence: bassist Jesse Krakow has anchored several Beefheart repertory ensembles.) Then Didkovsky solos with extreme abandon over horn cacophony.

There's so much happening here, and it all unfolds so quickly, that before you know it, you'll find yourself going back to the beginning, to make sure you really heard what you thought you did (as I've felt compelled to a dozen times since this arrived). As Nick would say, Rock On!


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