Honestly, I was expecting to be disappointed. Sunday night during the Table of the Elements Festival in Atlanta, Rhys Chatham--a Greenwich Village-born Paris resident most famous for writing the first pieces for massed guitar in the late '70s--premiered his new band, Essentialist.
A press release promised the band would "conjure a hallucinatory, mind-crushing form of metal unlike anything you've ever heard." That's a tough claim, and I was especially dubious having heard the band's back story before almost anyone knew the band existed. In March, Chatham hit the road for a rare tour of America, playing several dates before closing the tour with a 10-guitar performance of three of his most famous pieces at a church in downtown Austin, Texas during South by Southwest.
On the way to that show, David Daniell--one of two guitarists in Elements trio San Agustin--began playing doom and stoner metal from bands like Sunn 0))), Boris, Khanate and Sleep. Chatham immediately responded to it, saying that his next move in music had to be along that axis. That's right, Chatham--a 53-year-old composer who was working with avant household names like Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and Brian Eno before he was 20--wanted to start a doom metal band. The last time Chatham had such a rockist epiphany, he was 23 at a Ramones concert in New York. Then, his interest in electronic composition gave way to combining high-minded just intonation with a proletariat slew of rock 'n' roll guitars, bass and drums. It was, without a doubt, one of the most important musical adventures of the last century.
But, as late as Sunday night, I was concerned: Chatham had been listening to heavy metal for six months, and the songs he would play with Essentialist--he, Daniell and Adam Wills on guitar, Byron Westbrook on bass and Joe Stickney on drums--had been written a mere five days ago. Could he conquer the doom oeuvre with his ideas for overtones in six months?
Admittedly, my interest in the success of Chatham's new band was somewhat personal: Earlier this year, I was asked to join The Hem of His Garment, a Chapel-Hill based drone collective. I would be the fourth permanent member, but the eventual goal was to have membership in the teens, with various players (and their large amplifiers) coming from across the state for each ensemble performance. When Chatham announced he would embark on a rare club tour after the premiere of Essentialist on the fourth day of the Atlanta festival, Hem immediately asked to play. Three weeks later--when we found out we had one of two opening slots on the bill--we were elated.
Membership for the show approached the 16-person mark, and we quickly made arrangements for this to be our most heterophonic performance yet. We didn't pause to think that this was a new Chatham band, promised to be much different than his earlier pieces for multiple guitars (his work for 400 guitars will be issued in Decemeber). It could be terrible, but we didn't consider that.
After all, Chatham is one of the chief influences on what Hem does. Watching Chatham perform his most famous piece, "Guitar Trio," with six guitarists twice on Saturday night, the day before the Essentialist premiere, it was obvious: The piece builds slowly, each guitar coming in over time, steadily piecing a patchwork of overtones based around and over one key. Alone, the sound each guitar makes is entirely unremarkable. Together, 15 minutes into the piece, a room becomes saturated with sound, nuanced relationships bouncing off walls at high volume, covering every ear in the room with an impenetrable, calculably thick sound. Essentially, that serves as a mission statement for "Two Rooms," the piece Hem has been building for a year. Could one of our guiding lights go wrong on the tour we'd play?
Now, though, it's Monday morning in Atlanta, and I'm more excited than ever to be opening for Chatham Thursday night in Chapel Hill: Not unlike one of his current chief influences, Boris--an astounding Japanese drone-and-thrash band who swings through 506 on a similarly rare tour of the South two days after Chatham--his Essentialist is an explosive band rooted in typical metal rigors like splintering guitar solos and massive drum fills and monumental drones. It's not a new paradigm. It's heavy metal, a highly composed, exuberant nod to Chatham's new joy, luckily something he's more interested in adorning than overhauling.
Essentialist plays with Glissade and The Hem of His Garment at Local 506 on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. Boris plays with Pearls & Brass and Black Skies at 506 on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10.