By Drew Ailes
By Joseph Hess and Mabel Suen
By Kenny Snarzyk
By Dave Geeting
By David Thorpe
By Ben Westhoff
By Shea Serrano
By Drew Ailes
Aesthethica by Liturgy was one of last year's most divisive records. Purists of heavy music found many reasons to hate on the Brooklyn quartet — mostly its self-identification as "black metal" and singer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's frightened howling — but nobody could justify an ill word against drummer Greg Fox. Throughout Aesthethica, Fox respectfully melded the languages of metal and noise rock with the frightening stamina of drummers like Zach Hill and Chris Corsano.
Even more impressive than Greg Fox's work with Liturgy is how it only represents a sliver of his interests and abilities. He quit Liturgy at the end of 2011 and, without missing a single blast beat, began seriously pursuing Guardian Alien, his improvisational quintet whose proper debut, See the World Given to a One Love Entity, was released by Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records in July.
Functionally, Fox's role in Guardian Alien is much different than his spot in Liturgy or his hired-gun work with Teeth Mountain and Dan Deacon. "This is my first overt band-leading experience, to whatever extent that I'm actually being a bandleader," Fox says. "I'm not writing anybody's parts. It's not like I'm saying, 'This is what we're doing, and this is what the album is going to be called. If you don't like it, I don't care.' Everybody involved has ownership in the band. There's a lot of focus on my involvement because the band is built around the drumming, and it references all the other things I've done. It's the forum where I can lead with my musical intentions.
"When I started doing shows with what kind of became Guardian Alien, I was supposed to play solo, and I invited people to play with me," Fox says. "And then as it developed and started becoming a thing, we solidified as a lineup on the record that's been playing together for a while. And that's going to be on this tour and doing the touring for the foreseeable future."
With the spacy textures normally associated with psychedelic rock swirling around Fox's tornadic drumming, Entity achieves an enormity that would usually require intense premeditation. The earnestness of Guardian Alien's formation and the freeform structure of Entity make the one-track, 31-minute mind-melt come off like spiritual catharsis.
"The record is basically a piece that consists of certain rules and guidelines, but it's not a really overtly composed piece," Fox explains. "The record is in B flat, so one of the biggest rules on the record is to play that note. There are other guidelines about the dynamics and space, but it's like a bunch of feedback loops with people bringing in ideas in the moment. On this tour we'll play the record, and it will be different every night."
The process behind Entity recalls the free-fusion records Miles Davis crafted in his electric phase. At some points the music seems to be in the same family as Davis' On the Corner, partially because of Guardian Alien's heavy use of the shahi baaja, an electrified Indian zitherlike instrument manned by Turner Williams Jr. "The shahi baaja is as essential to our sound as my drumming," Fox says. "Turner and I have been playing together since before I even thought of starting a band and well before this group even had a name. This whole thing started because I saw Turner play and told him I wanted to play music with him."
Before Turner Williams Jr. was a New Yorker, he studied visual art at Washington University. While in St. Louis, he attended shows at DIY venues such as Spooky Action Palace and Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center. He also befriended local free improvisers Dave Stone and Jeremy Kannapell (alias Ghost Ice), but he did not actively perform his music until after his move.
"The whole time I was in St. Louis, I was holed up in my apartment drawing and practicing the shahi baaja," Williams says. "I didn't expect to fall in with a crew in New York like I did, and I feel very fortunate. I think playing music, especially this weird kind of music, people come together because it feels good. It's like, people just find each other."
Guardian Alien also includes vocalist Alex Drewchin Jr. (of psych-pop band Eartheater), bassist Eli Winograd (also of the noise-folk band Two Prong) and Fox's former Liturgy bandmate and Flaming Tusk member guitarist Bernard Gann. The lineup shows Greg Fox's interest in collaboration and the inspiration he finds in the wide variety of musicians in New York.
"I feel like there's something going on," Fox explains. "I'm not sure if it's just me or if it's actually happening or if I'm picking up on something that's been happening and I've just been oblivious to it, but I feel like there's a resurgence of this jazz-musician mentality but in a more wide-ranging fashion. Not applying to one type of music, but more about whatever way musicians approach whatever kind of music they're doing. And it just feels like, to me, based on the conversations I've had with other musicians, that there's a lot of excitement lately.
"For such a long time there was such an emphasis on this blog-rock type of situation where you had to make this record and this song and it has to be something people can easily recognize and categorize," Fox continues. "And then you go on tour, and then you get your big reviews, and then you sell your records, and you make another record. I feel like the emphasis has shifted."