It first became a serious problem in the late '60s. Longtime rockers, drunk with their growing technical facility ("chops," in musician-speak), began to pursue projects that showcased instrumental solos over singing and song writing; the dreaded art-rock, jazz-rock and fusion were hatched. Disco and punk eventually tempered this trend, but chops-rock didn't die. It just got put on the back burner; after a decade or so of simmering had boiled off all the flavor, it was served up again as new age.
Now a new generation of rockers wants to demonstrate that it too knows more than three chords. IRS, the quintessential new wave label, has started an instrumental series called No Speak, which label Chairman Miles Copeland says will appeal to "the awake side of the Windham Hill audience." SST, the quintessential California hard-core punk label, has put out so many albums of instrumental music that it can release a 15-artist sampler of it. Even heavy-metal guitarists like Joe Satriani, who performs at the Bayou tonight, are stepping out with vocal-less records that showcase their fretboard surfing.
Stewart Copeland: "The Equalizer and Other Cliff Hangers"
Stewart Copeland is not really a member of the punk generation; his musical heritage can be traced back to Curved Air, an eminently forgettable early-'70s British art-rock band. Still, Copeland only became widely known after the Police, for whom he drummed, burst out of the punk club circuit and into sports arenas worldwide. And it's only since the Police split that Copeland's been reborn as an art-rocker.
Wisely, Copeland began his instrumental forays as a sound-track composer, with a suitably adventurous score for Francis Coppola's stylish "Rumble Fish." Copeland's first album for his brother's new label, "The Equalizer and Other Cliff Hangers" (IRS/No Speak IRS-42099), is also based on his scoring work, in this case for the TV series "The Equalizer." For little-screen music, it's bracingly distinctive, but compared with Copeland's other instrumental work it's sometimes as wallpaperlike as, well, TV.
"Equalizer" is the strongest effort of the first four No Speak discs -- which also spotlight noodlings from William Orbit and two early Miles Copeland management clients, Wishbone Ash and the ex-Climax Blues Band guitarist Pete Haycock -- and it certainly contains explosive moments. Still, Copeland is fundamentally a percussionist, and this record -- on which he plays all the instruments -- relies too much on dreamy keyboards. (Perhaps that's appropriate for an album that Copeland claims was recorded in the biblical lost city of Nineveh, Assyria.)
The disc holds its shape, but repeated listenings reveal diversity too. Copeland apes 19th-century romanticism on "Green Fingers (Ten Thumbs)," "Rag Pole Dance" and "Dark Ships," but also adapts the propulsive contemporary minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in tracks like "Music Box" and "Flowershop Quintet." (Some pieces, such as "Tancred Ballet," have both.) If that sounds rather cerebral for a TV cop show, the record also has its action-scene pieces, Copeland's big beat throbbing on cuts like "Screaming Lord Cole and the Commanches" and "The Equalizer Busy Equalizing."
Copeland's career might not have amounted to much without his brother's aggressive management, but he has certainly balanced the scale: Based on its initial releases, Miles Copeland's No Speak imprint wouldn't amount to much without his brother's contribution.
Various Artists: "No Age"
SST's sampler of its instrumental releases, "No Age" (SST 102), opens with the label's original band, Black Flag, twisting and turning through the caterwauling "Southern Rise," a track from "The Process of Weeding Out," the 1985 album that marked the group's entry into all-instrumental terrain. From there, though, the selection of performers -- like SST's rapidly expanding roster -- is broad. Amid Southern California punkers such as Gone (fronted by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn) and Lawndale are also aging British art-rockers such as Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser and an early-'70s guitar hero (albeit an obscure one), ex-Hampton Grease Band guitarist Glenn Phillips.
After the exciting first side, which features the antics of Black Flag, Blind Idiot God, Kaiser, New York art-punker Elliott Sharp and Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, "No Age" becomes surprisingly conventional. Woodwind-led peregrinations from Scott Colby and Richmond's Alter Natives produce predictable jazz-rock, and Phillips' "Vista Cruiser" is pretty -- and pretty dull. Henry Kaiser (this time in the company of Fred Frith) and Elliott Sharp return on the final side, but generally "No Age" could just as easily be called "No Surprises." If a label as irreverent as SST -- note the sleeve's amusing parody of a typical new age album cover -- can't deliver more provocative instrumental rock than this, what hope is there for a relatively dowdy line like IRS' No Speak?
Joe Satriani: "Surfing With the Alien"
Aguitar instructor, sideman and studio musician whose students (Steve Vai of the David Lee Roth band, Metallica's Kirk Hammett) are better known than he is, Joe Satriani developed a cult following based on his previous solo outing, "Not of This Earth" (a prior, privately pressed record is actually his first record, but few have heard it). His new "Surfing With the Alien" (Relativity 88561-8193-1) is less flashy than its predecessor, but it still ends up sounding like a job application. Here's all this string-bending, hyperdrive technique, it says, now give me something to do with it.
Not that the record's 10 tracks aren't fully developed. Recorded with Satriani playing guitar, bass and keyboards (three other musicians assisted with percussion), the album is an assured tour of electric guitar styles from chugging heavy metal ("Crushing Day") to swinging jazz-metal fusion ("Satch Boogie"). Still, the record ultimately sounds more like a cheat sheet for apprentice metallurgists than anything nonplayers would ever listen to for pleasure. "Surfing" will certainly enchant the Satriani cult, but this man needs to find honest work. Satriani performs at the Bayou tonight.
Richard Harrington's On the Beat column will resume next week.