Secret Chiefs 3
Legend has it that 11th Century Persian sheikh Hassan-i-Sabbah inspired fanatic, even suicidal, devotion from his legions. His method of initiation was to kidnap and drug his foes’ fiercest soldiers, then bring them to his fully functioning Garden of Earthly Delights, which was complete with exotic delicacies, fountains of wine, and good-to-go virgins. When his captives came to, dazed and suggestible in their psychedelic stupors, they were told they had died and entered heaven. Sabbah had only to promise that each of his subjects would return to Paradise if fortunate enough to martyr himself in his service. For a century, Sabbah’s Hashishim — “Hash Eaters,” from which we derive the word assassin — were the most feared killers in the known world. It seems that Sabbah and Trey Spruance have something in common. Spruance, Secret Chiefs 3’s chief composer and a former guitarist for Mr. Bungle, is a visionary madman capable of instilling both fear and respect in his listeners. Secret Chiefs 3 have existed in various incarnations over the course of the past eight years, and have served as the funnel for Spruance’s remarkably far-flung studies of the hermetic mysteries and musical traditions of unknown and underappreciated subgenres. Album titles like Grand Constitution and Bylaws and Book M hint at the music’s vaguely metaphysical bent. Over three years in the making, Book of Horizons is Secret Chiefs’ most expansive and coherent statement, an alchemical fusion of Morricone-esque cinematic grandeur, midnight surf guitar, traditional Middle Eastern rhythms and time signatures, demonic death metal, and electronic deviance that yields a work of undeniable force. The album seems to develop a more acute, galloping schizophrenia as it progresses. The opening quartet of tunes — each attributed to a different sub-group of Chiefs — moves from solemn to wanton: “The End Times,” with plaintive bowed saw and string section, moves to the black-market Bollywood funk of “The 4” by Ishraqiyun, which, after a brief, eerie dub interlude, bleeds into to the brutal screamfest “Exterminating Angel” by the Holy Vehm. Though the variance is great between the songs, each stays within the format of its genre. That respect to structure unravels quickly and intoxicatingly in the album’s midsection. As the cast of players rotates, so do the names of the ensembles — a narrative touch that lends Book of Horizons an epic feel. Common threads like copious strings and exotic percussion provided by William Winant (Thurston Moore’s go-to skins man), Shazad Ismaily (Brian Eno, Elysian Fields), and Phil Franklin (Sunburned Hand of the Man) maintain some semblance of order. By the time “The Owl in Daylight” appears — sweeping from creepy electro grind to soothing acoustic guitar and chimes — and the hallucinatory beachfront kasbah groove of “On the Wings of Haoma” by The Electromagnetic Azoth takes flight, unpredictability has taken the reins. Potentially the album’s pivot point, UR’s “Book T: Exodus” is a remake of the Exodus movie theme, incorporating immense string and horn ensembles created purely through meticulous overdubs. It’s a gorgeously orchestrated moment that wouldn’t be out of place in the closing credits of a 1970s Godzilla flick. As the album nears its close, two of the final pieces move through so many styles that trying to peg them all would be impossible. The titles speak for themselves: “DJ Revisionist (The Spin Masta, Kultur Killa, with da Mad Crypto-Colonial Skillz)” and “Anthropomorphosis: Boxleitner” are exercises in new wave Middle Eastern electro freak lullaby majesty. This is the kind of music that really must be heard to be understood, bound by a surreal logic both ridiculous and unforced; a true accomplishment, indeed. Whether or not Spruance and his Secret Chiefs 3 are the intermediaries between heaven and earth is, um, hard to say, but with Book of Horizons it seems they’re certainly communing with a power beyond the merely human. Virtuosity, paired with a fearless love of divergent styles and the humor and talent to skillfully, unmercifully mash them up, pushes this album into rarified heights. Bungle’s major label connections and early association with John Zorn have given them a mainstream exposure that Secret Chiefs 3 will probably never receive. But Spruance’s mongoloid baby is a golden child, effortlessly balancing aplomb, apocalypse and apoplexy to create a truly daring, mystifying journey.