Sun City Girls Re-Issue Risk-Taking, The Necks Get Ghostly And Sinister
Sun City Girls
Torch of the Mystics
A strong case could be made for the declaration that no other band ever was as willing to take as many musical risks as Sun City Girls, the Seattle via Arizona trio with an unmatched versatility, that could veer off into every direction imaginable with breathtaking abandon and musicianship.
Being fearless world travelers, Sun City Girls often borrowed songs and styles from India, Indonesia, north Africa and the Middle East, but they also delivered insane garage rock, hillbilly campfire songs or free jazz freakouts, among the hundreds of their impossibly diverse offerings. If listeners were left shaking their heads, confused or offended, then so be it.
The trio disbanded after the death of primary percussionist Charles Gocher in 2007, leaving brothers Alan (main bassist) and Richard Bishop (main guitarist) to pursue their other outlets and tend the immense back catalog, and now, in commemoration of its 25th anniversary, comes a welcome reissue of the 1990 album Torch of the Mystics after being out-of-print for years.
Opinions about Sun City Girls from fans can diverge wildly, but if there is one album that fans agree upon, it’s Torch of the Mystics, being perhaps the best introduction to the group—it’s not marred by unlistenable moments nor does it hold back regarding the group’s potency. Also, while a number of Sun City Girls releases are lo-fi home recordings, Torch of the Mystics is a professional sounding recording, loud and clear.
It’s a strange, distinctive amalgam, smashing together Middle Eastern motifs, manic rock/western/cowboy guitar work and delirious non-English singing, suggesting some music invented on an island of international castaways.
“Esoterica of Abyssynia” is a favorite that Richard Bishop still plays to this day, with a killer riff taken from a song the group recorded from the radio in Egypt in the mid-’80s; the interplay is tight, demonstrating the band’s uncanny mind-meld even through chaos, but it’s not a robotic precision.
“Space Prophet Dogon” evokes some kind of deep, life-changing spiritual ceremony with a revelatory mood and unbridled singing. Since Sun City Girls took so many risks, there are quite a few thorns in the group’s catalog, but Torch of the Mystics is the clearest path for newcomers to experience the band’s brilliance.
The Australian instrumental trio The Necks has built a remarkable career with its own improvisational methods, sharing qualities with jazz and minimalism yet never really settling into a neat category.
Audiences at their live performance are rewarded for their patience; a set will typically begin with a simple motif that sprouts and expands into a rich, hypnotic exploration that is usually 45 minutes to an hour long. However, the studio output of the group can sometimes be more complicated than the live experience, with the use of overdubbing and stereo panning, a greater complexity and more frequent transitions.
The stunning new album Vertigo, comprised of a single 44-minute track, takes advantage of the studio environment to unpeel a sonic onion resting on a bed in the form of a monolithic bass drone supplied by Lloyd Swanton.
The word “vertigo” may bring to mind the Hitchcock masterpiece or the condition itself; the former evocation is apt, with a sense of sinister mystery shrouding the proceedings with disturbing outbursts of rattling and clanging percussion from Tony Buck and a general tense feeling.
The condition vertigo is also evoked at choice moments, with squirming and writhing bass notes around the 19-minute mark and sounds panning between the left and right channels to push the listener off-balance. Piano notes from Chris Abrahams flutter intensely like mutant, killer butterflies, with occasional electronic sparks flying and cosmic frequencies puncturing the background.
Figures gradually emerge from the fog on this aural ghost tour, peppered with disquieting sounds like one deeply unsettling one that is repeated that sounds like a match being violently struck, combined with a dragging noise. Abrahams’ keyboard tones bring to mind at various moments Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way or Harold Budd’s shimmering piano, among faceless lurking forces.
As the album approaches its closing, spectres whisper and peculiar squeaking sounds offer a last gasp on yet another masterful offering from The Necks.