AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: James Grigsby – Illusions (2022; Bandcamp)

I had my write-up schedule for AMN all tied up for the next two months in a tidy, neat bow.  Yeah, I was going to dive into all kinds of already chosen acousmatic, hauntological, field recording, electroacoustic goodies.  My timeline was all storyboarded out and I was ready to go, and then this thing comes out… and pretty much fucked everything in my tiny world.  Now I just don’t know what to do cuz I’m a hot mess while I try to pick up the pieces of my broken life.  Why?  Because when something new comes out from, or related to the Motor Totemist Guild (which is DEFINITELY not an everyday occurrence) … well, drop everything, turn off the phone (after I call a dog walker), order take-out and stop binging streaming TV shows because this situation must be dealt with.  Thanks for ruining my life, Grigsby!

James Grigsby was the driving force behind the southern California new music ensemble Motor Totemist Guild.  I first became aware of MTG back in the mid 80’s via the Wayside Music paper catalogs.  The group’s sound was an amalgam of several styles, none of them being “rock music” per se.  I heard elements of modern classical, chamber-prog, outside jazz moves, free improv, art music, some very forward-sounding musique concrète, and tape manipulation elements, (now that I think about this, they seem to just belong there… but I sure didn’t realize it back then) and I sensed a weird musical-theater vibe.  I’ve yet to go back to re-visit some of the old recordings I have but now that this has surfaced, I very well might.

I don’t know if they would call it a “scene” but, MTG moved in the same circles as David Kerman’s 5uu’s. (latest release, after decades of silence talked about here).  Kerman played drums and percussion in both groups, and they even combined forces to form U Totem for a couple of stunning albums.  (There is a great retrospective of U Totem’s classic first album right here).  Into the 90’s and early 00’s, MTG released a couple of excellent albums, “City of Mirrors” on the Cuneiform imprint and “All America City” on their house label, Rotary Totem Records.  Both records show absolutely zero desire to pander to any sort of commercial influence, in fact, they sound more “outside” than earlier releases in their catalog.

After that, pretty much silence… until now!  While the Guild is not exactly back in town, James Grigsby has whack-a-moled into the house with Illusions and… paint me green and race me at Aqueduct… that sound is still intact!!!

Illusions times out at about 33 minutes but don’t be deceived by this abbreviated length because, like a swollen tick feasting on the girth of a pregnant Hippo, this album is flush with the fluid of perpetually morphing detail.  If ever repeat listens are called for, Illusions would be the poster child. 

There are 13 tracks on the album and none of them are over the 3:30 mark, most of them are around 2 minutes.  To stuff this much musical coherence into such a small box is a special talent… Grigsby does it on all 13 tracks.  Each and every one of them is fully fleshed out and exquisitely developed in their brevity.

Micro-focusing on each of the 13 tracks would be futile and make this write-up novella length so I’m just going to say that Illusions is an album of moments.  Since these moments are legion, I’ll speak in generalities as well as pinpoint some of my own personal “moments” interacting with this album.

First, the concept.  Yes, Illusions is a concept album about magic.  Everyone loves magic, right?  Each of the 13 pieces was inspired by a magician and their classic illusions.  Sound-wise, think Victorian-era parlour music, but written and played by number crunching, “ringer” musicians who really know their shit.  And speaking of playing, I’m not really 100% sure some of this is played by live acoustic instruments.  I occasionally sense a Zappa, Jazz from Hell synclavier type of thing going on. 

There is one other artist credited on this album besides Grigsby, percussionist/composer/sound designer Timothy Corpus.  The kit drums and percussion (presumably played by Corpus) sound live but I’m not sure about all the woodwinds, brass, and strings.  Likewise, Grigsby was the bass player on the early MTG albums, and on Illusion there is an electric bass presence but again, there seems to be more of a sampler vibe that is persistent throughout.  This all makes sense since, on the later MTG albums, Grigsby is credited with computer and sampler.  (I reserve the right to be completely wrong about all of this.)

None of this should make any difference though if the music is good… and no worries on that front.  If it is sequenced, it’s done in such a natural manner that you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between man and machine, and anyway, enough on that.

If someone asked me what kind of music is on Illusions, the tricky answer would be something like this:  Think 3rd stream fusion, the kind coined by Gunther Schuller but instead of mixing jazz with classical, Illusions lightly, and sparingly mixes rock with classical.  What makes it unique is the “kind” of rock and the “kind” of classical.

Elaboration:  The “rock” manifests itself, like all rock music in its rhythmical content.  This is where the electric bass and kit drums come in.  It’s subtle, but it’s there, and I think it would greatly appeal to a certain “type” of listener.  Someone who enjoys the dulcet (or not) sounds of something called “chamber-prog” popularized (?) by groups like Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, Present, and even the more obscure Julverne, Nazca, and Noetra (which may come the closest).

Mind you, as I mentioned earlier… Illusions doesn’t belong in the chamber, but more in the parlour.  It becomes a matter of degrees from dark, towards the light, and this album trends toward the light.  There are so many references, styles, moods, and emotions embedded in this music that trying to mark them all would be, really, hard.  As I mentioned earlier, this is an album of moments, so without even trying, here is a list (I love my lists!) that hardly scratches the surface:

1-Tons of humor and lighthearted fun scattered everywhere.

2-The sentimentality and pathos of Sylvian’s and Sakamoto’s “Forbidden Colors.”

3-The musical complexity you would expect to hear from people like Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Davis, or Henry Threadgill in their most rehearsal intensive modern classical pieces.

4-Elegantly arranged miniatures giving more than a nod to Carla Bley.

5-A strong sense of the nostalgic, only not in the Hauntological static, crackle, and glitch of a lost future but more of a peek into times portal of historical and cultural significance.

6-The absolute joy of connecting the dots of this release back to the MTG releases of the 80’s and realizing that this modern work retains that timeless sound that I first fell in love with.

7-Finally, as an addendum to #6 and speaking as a non-creator of music… the realization of Grigsby’s musical world with 21st-century music making technology is not only fascinating as a listening experience but, possibly of more importance, provides the allowance for the artist to expand on his vision in new ways.

So, hopefully, I’ve made myself clear on the fact that Illusions is a wonderful return to a “sound”, even a “scene” that meant a whole lot to me 40 years ago.  More importantly though, the trappings of time, technology, lifestyle changes, etc. did not get in the way of moving this music forward into the “today”.  I can’t help but ponder if Grigsby has more music (along with a few rabbits and pigeons) in his proverbial top hat to share with the world.  Whatever that answer may be, what we have now, Illusions… is a pure joy.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

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