Paul Schütze: Site Anubis
“That morning a report came in from an unmarked helicopter somewhere over the city. The waters were subsiding and the smoke from a thousand fires had begun to drift inland revealing an impossible new structure. Towering some eight hundred feet over the gleaming devastation of the streets, its base occupying an entire city block, was a colossal black basalt figure. The body was male and human,—the head, which stared expectantly toward the boiling western horizon, was the head of a jackal. From the air it was clear that the pattern of destruction on the ground was radial and that the massive figure was sited precisely at its centre.”
Schütze devised the preceding scenario of an 800-foot high statue of Anubis standing at the centre of a devastated city as an originating premise for Site Anubis, an hallucinatory, surrealistic vision of apocalyptic dread. Site Anubis is the third piece of a four-part whole, although it's typically cited as the last part of 'The Pacific Unrest Trilogy,' a label coined by writer Biba Kopff. The first piece, New Maps of Hell, appeared in 1992 and draws heavily upon the Miles Davis style found on Agharta-Pangaea. The second, New Maps of Hell II: The Rapture of Metals, carries on the themes of the first but shifts the musical style into a more controlled, gamelan-influenced zone. Site Anubis presents a nightmarish portrait of civilization collapsing, a portrait sonically conveyed by the aggressive attack of the Phantom City collective. The fourth, Shiva Recoil (LiveUnlive), is not included typically with the trilogy but is certainly an extension of Site Anubis, as it takes the 'virtual band' and records them performing live at the Tampere Jazz Festival in Finland.
The musicians comprising Phantom City—the name, incidentally, originating from the book title Topology of a Phantom City by French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet—never met for the recording of Site Anubis, as each one recorded in a different studio in a different country: guitarist Raoul Björkenheim in Helsinki, bass- and contra-bass clarinetist Alex Buess in a Basel studio, soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill in London, bassist Bill Laswell at Green Point Studio in Brooklyn, New York, trombonist Julian Priester in Seattle, drummer Dirk Wachtelaer in Brussels, and Schütze himself in London and Basel. Incredibly, Laswell had only Schütze's electronic backing track to respond to. Wachtelaer had Laswell and Schütze to play against, Björkenheim had drums and bass,—in short, certain players had more information than others. A major challenge (understandably) for Schütze was to make it convincingly sound like people playing together. Eventually, the individual parts were collected and assembled, with the intent being to fashion a coherent whole in the editing room from the bits and pieces. The music is obviously controlled in the sense of being manipulated and assembled yet it still retains an 'organic' quality, as if the pieces naturally unfold through the interactions of its players. It's an illusion of sorts, given the process of creation, but a thoroughly convincing one. The result is a sensuous music constructed using a solid structural foundation to support the pursuit of more liberated improvisational flights. It's not easy listening, and nor should it be, if it's intending to aurally evoke states of urban paranoia and technological collapse. Schütze has managed to reign in the radio signals of a dystopian version of our society and made it available as a prescient portrait of our imminent downfall. This theme is further reinforced by WaterFall, Tsunehisa Kimura's cover image, which depicts the glorious architectural achievements of Manhattan's cityscape on the verge of obliteration by catastrophe. That Schütze and Kimura were devising this portrait of urban destruction in 1996 is telling, given the all-too-real devastation that was wreaked upon the city in September, 2001.
Music of such quality and detail demands a close reading. The mood is established by Schütze immediately at the outset of “Future Nights” with a prelude of city horns and other ambient city sounds. He functions here as he does throughout, as an omnipresent sound colourist rather than soloist. Schütze is the conceptual orchestrator of the proceedings, his presence always felt but subtly so. Wachtelaer, Björkenheim, and Laswell then enter, Laswell's bass a resolute anchor to complement the astonishing Wachtelaer; all great bands begin with great drummers and Wachtelaer, like Tony Williams with Miles Davis, is no exception. Björkenheim's lines are at one moment cleanly enunciated and the next raw and distorted as befits the mood. “An Early Mutation” deploys a flurry of percussive activity as a base over which multiple layers of guitars, bass, clarinet, and electronics slowly interweave. “Blue Like Petrol” begins more quietly, the instruments emerging as if from sleep until they gradually cohere into a rhythm. Wachtelaer is the standout here as he constantly devises mesmerizingly inventive drum and cymbal patterns, the bass, guitar, electronics, and clarinet circling around him. Julian Priester's trombone is featured on the cacophonous “The Big God Blows In' atop a broiling, industrial base of drums, squealing guitars, and electronic noise. Schütze's electric piano and synths assume a central place in the dirge-like “Ten Acre Ghost” but are soon swallowed by the cumulative mass of bass, clarinet, guitars, and drums. “‘Eight Legs Out Of Limbo” is an apt title for a track that sounds like its players are soloistically pursuing individual melodic strands but is, for all that, no less compelling. At one point, Schütze almost drowns the others in a huge electronic storm but they manage to individually pull themselves out of his undertow. “‘Inflammable Shadow” is somewhat of a chill-out episode, the proverbial calm after the storm. Even here, however, the quieter volume hardly lessens the mood of dread as the instruments wend their separate ways like snakes slithering through tall grasses. While the listener is recovering from the understandable exhaustion induced by this exhilarating session, it's worth reiterating that the incredible music of this 'band' is largely an illusion, as the musicians never shared studio space for their contributions. That such an illusion is so convincingly and seamlessly maintained throughout is a tribute to the editing genius of Schütze and Alex Buess.
This is a remarkable brand of 'post-fusion,' music inspired by the irrepressible exploratory sensibilities of fearless precursors like The Mahavishnu Orchestra in its Between Nothingness and Eternity heyday and the Miles Davis of the Dark Magus era, but in no way beholden to either stylistically. This isn't some woeful exercise in nostalgia; Schütze is not attempting to revive or replicate the styles associated with the glorious peaks of that era. (Musicians like Mark Isham keep the Miles flame burning, for example, by producing Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project, and in New York, The Mahavishnu Project revisits the spirit in like manner. There is nothing objectionable about keeping the music of these eras alive and treating, even instating them, as jazz repertory. But when such projects become a substitute for the pursuit of new musics, the exploratory spirit personified so marvelously by those earlier artists dies.) Instead, armed with the technological advances afforded by electronics, he channels the same spirit that fuels the muse towards the creation of provocative new experimental forms. Schütze carried Phantom City further with the live recording Shiva Recoil (LiveUnlive) where the musicians achieve a level of interplay that rivals the heights scaled by McLaughlin and company years ago. For fifty minutes, the musicians create an enthralling maelstrom of sound, an achievement made even more incredible when one discovers that no rehearsals occurred prior to the performance. And then … nothing—from Phantom City, that is. Schütze has been incredibly prolific in the years since with gallery works and site pieces but the next chapter, regrettably, in the Phantom City project is yet to be written.