Praxis – Zurich
Buckethead Audio Virus
Theater of Eternal Turntables (In 3 Parts)
Transmutation 3 -Fresh Impression
Telematic Circuit Break (In 2 Parts)
Low Bass Monster
Compressed Signal Cuts
Transmutation 5 (Ascent)
Undercurrent Live at Knitting Factory
Among the 90,000 self-avowed hipsters and tripsters who braved the heavy rains at Bonnaroo 2004 in Manchester, Tennessee last summer, the chances are good that only a few of them were truly prepared for the sonic onslaught of Praxis. The band hit their mark at around midnight on the first day of what has become the jam circuit’s top-selling music festival, and from the outset, the core trio of Buckethead (guitars), Brain (drums) and Bill Laswell (bass)-with a special guest appearance by P-Funk synth wizard Bernie Worrell-packed a wallop.
“Hardcore supergroup Praxis bring the noise, but guitarist Buckethead is freaking me out,” was the reaction from VH1′s Scott Lapatine, and he wasn’t alone; other music crits and fans alike were equally blown away by the “mind-twistingly manic” and “almost unbelievable” sounds emanating from the wall of amplifiers onstage. Many in the crowd had already heard of Buckethead through his much-publicized break with Axl Rose and Guns ‘N Roses, while Brain was equally well-known for his stint with Les Claypool’s Primus and other groups on the Bay Area punk-funk scene. Laswell, for his part, has enjoyed a devout fanbase simply for the sheer quantity of albums he has produced, for artists ranging from Herbie Hancock to Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, George Clinton and beyond. But any feeling of familiarity at Bonnaroo was quickly dashed by the group’s futuristic blend of industrial noise, avant-rock, dub, funk and hip-hop-all of which taken together created, for most in attendance that night, an entirely alien but somehow weirdly compelling experience.
Although Bonnaroo was billed as their “American premiere,” the truth is Praxis have played to numerous small audiences in the states going back to the mid-1990s. Their larger festival dates in Europe and Japan have become quasi-legendary, spawning a brisk bootleg market and raising a clamor among underground disciples in search of “official” live CDs. The latest Innerhythmic release Live in Zurich joins the small crop of live Praxis recordings that have been sanctioned, overseen and produced by Bill Laswell himself.
To grasp more of the conceptual exegesis behind the group, a bit of history is in order. The name Praxis has been applied over the years to a number of loose configurations of musicians either fronted or produced by Bill Laswell, going back to an experimental 12-inch in the early ’80s on the infamous Celluloid label that consisted of shortwave noise over drum machine beats. Since then, a revolving army of innovators from Bootsy Collins to John Zorn to Bernie Worrell have contributed to Praxis projects, particularly Transmutation (Axiom, 1992) and Sacrifist (Subharmonic, 1994). The last true studio album to feature the current trio was Metatron (Subharmonic, 1995), but at this writing, plans are afoot to go back in the studio in 2005 with some very special guests joining in the fray.
When asked about the current mission of Praxis, Laswell’s take is unusually nonchalant-a laid-back air he brings to just about any live project he gets involved in personally. “It’s not really something we had set out to develop all that much,” he says, “so it’s still based in what it was, which is a very volume-oriented, loud sound with guitars, dub bass and a rock rhythm section. The response we’ve received has been kind of surprising, which I guess is partly why we’ve kept at it off and on. There’s not much else to say, other than that I plan to develop a lot of stuff with Buckethead in the future. Still, it’s gonna be rock improvisation. It will never be free jazz or avant garde or some of the other things I’ve been involved with, because it will always have a rock foundation.”
Live in Zurich resides firmly in the rock realm, and takes with it a heavy dose of the outside influences-hip-hop in particular-that Praxis fans have come to expect. Recorded on June 21, 1996 at the JazzNoJazz Festival in Zurich, this is also one of the group’s earliest gigs, and finds them in topflight form for an enthusiastic audience. Grandmixer DXT-one of the original architects of Herbie Hancock’s international hit “Rockit” (produced by Laswell) and widely recognized by youngbloods today as the first true “turntablist” (see Doug Pray’s pivotal DJ documentary film Scratch)-starts the journey off with his signature deep space wobble on the Technics 1200, processing the signal through multiple pedal effects before engaging in the full-on scratch assault of “Flame War”. His flips and backspins are augmented here and throughout the album by the able-bodied crew of DJ Q-Bert, Mixmaster Mike, DJ Disk and Shortkut-known collectively at the time as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and still a crew who were only scratching the surface (literally) of notoriety outside their native SF Bay Area. “Theatre of Eternal Turntables,” “Telematic Circuit Break” and “Cut Chaos” are the standouts, with Q-Bert and Disk displaying their mind-boggling transformer techniques as Mike goes off on his signature wah-wah emulating slice-and-dice routine. (Of course, as we all know now, Q-Bert went on to fame with Kool Keith, Dan the Automator and a slew of high-profile producers, while Mixmaster Mike laid claim to the DJ chair for the Beastie Boys. DJ Disk continues to this day to tour and record with Praxis.)
The core trio gets its chance to shine on a number of pivotal tracks. “Buckethead Audio Virus” showcases the young guitarist’s impressive control of feedback and distortion, not to mention his ability to challenge guitar gods like Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen at their own game. Brain and Laswell lock up tight on “Ekstasis” and the latter half of “Direct Hit,” making their case as one of the funkiest rhythm sections to ever work a hard rock context to death. Later on in the sequence we find “Transmutation 5,” the cooled-down closer, with Laswell hurling huge gobs of envelope-soaked bass while Buckethead sensitively coaxes a plaintive six-string solo out of the depths, crescendoing with sheets of sound in the vein of Coltrane.
There’s much more to discover here, including a piece of obscurata: truly devout Praxis heads will note that the set documented here was originally released back in 1996 on the short-lived Douglas imprint as Transmutation Live; even so, there are some key differences that make Live in Zurich, in its current form, well worth the price of admission. Aside from the overall audio mix being slightly retouched in the mastering phase, a bonus track from one of the group’s New York appearances at the Knitting Factory (recorded shortly after the Zurich show) has also been included. “Undercurrent” is a vintage shot of Praxis at their most brazenly psychedelic, with Laswell and Brain laying down a liquid-sounding dub groove as DJ Disk makes the scene to tear up huge slabs of wax behind Buckethead’s insistent sky-scorching leads.
Incredible as it may sound, nearly ten years later, the music presented here somehow still holds up as one possible glimpse of the future of improvised rock. Critics would be hard pressed to find any group today playing on the same level as Praxis, whose devotion to trying anything new is what seems to drive not only their creativity but their growing fanbase as well. As Buckethead, with his customary aplomb, told Guitar Player magazine back in 1996, around the time that the Zurich show was being planned, “Praxis is a big binge loaf, like terror long dangler buddies on a scoop rack. [To me], taking people away in their imaginations is a lot more important than freaking people out with the guitar.” And who are we to argue?