Sun City Girls - Torch Of The Mystics LP
Originally recorded in 1988 during a time when the Bishop brothers and Charles Gocher had been making much more overtly subversive work. 1987's Horse Cock Phepner (an album that could use this reissue treatment, by the way) experimented with drug-addled spoken word, hypno-percussive vulgarity-ridden tributes to Nancy Reagan, and Urinals-esque minimalist noise-punk. This makes sense given the Bishop brothers' musical upbringing in the early '80s Arizona punk and hardcore world. But the recordings sessions that would become Torch of the Mystics had such a different result. Like we mentioned last week, due in large part to the success of labels like Bishop's Sublime Frequencies, in making the SCG's third world influences more familiar to us, this record does get the "most accessible" label, maybe even more than it seemed originally. It's still fantastically out-there, but yeah, compared to other Sun City Girls output before and after this record, this is downright radio friendly.
It's hard to talk about records that are this fantastic, we don't really have words that can do it justice. Right from the first snare crack of opener "Blue Mamba," it's impossible not to get sucked into another world. The first notes of the bass line immediately floor us, then the whole band comes in, with droll vocals not even really saying coherent words over some sort of desert-scorched melody, part Sahara and part Sonoran. "Tarmac 23" is up next, a total outsider improvised psych freak-out, the guitar line an off-kilter loop, Gocher's drumming managing to keep the whole thing together. "Esoterica Of Abyssynia" and "Space Prophet Dogon" are, of course, the masterpieces of this record. "Esoterica" has a twisting and looping guitar line like something John Fahey would play if he studied under the tutelage of Ravi Shankar, and also owned a distortion pedal. "Space Prophet Dogon" is one of those instances that makes us all go full Andee and say "perhaps THEE greatest song EVER!" Seriously, without trying to sound too over-the-top hyperbolic, "Space Prophet Dogon" (later covered by the Grails) is one of those songs that should be played at funerals. A spiritual, otherworldly lick with its roots somewhere in Egypt or maybe a Moroccan hash cafe, but in true Sun City Girls fashion, twisted and warped to their liking. The longest song on the record (a scant 7 minutes) with the last 2 and a half completely improvised, and perhaps the most beautiful part, a bleary-eyed psych trip. This record would be totally worth it if it just played this song 11 times, trust us. But there's so much more! "Cafe Batik," "The Flower," "Papa Legba," and "Burial In The Sky" all follow in the footsteps of "Tarmac 23," improvised, warped, outsider-jazz-raga-middle eastern psych-folk numbers with Gocher's percussive mastery and Alan Bishop's sung/shouted vocals taking front row. "The Shining Path" could be a lost track off a Morricone soundtrack, a whistle-and-acoustic guitar number with that catchy and haunting melody line sung over it. "Radar 1941" is like the Ventures on thorazine, a slowed down, chewed up and spit-out attempt at surfy skronk. Like a foreshadowing of his solo career, "The Vinegar Stroke" is a classic Sir Richard Bishop piece, a masterfully played acoustic guitar track that feels like it's pulling inspiration from 5 different musical styles at once.
In short, (ha!) Torch Of The Mystics is an album that is from both everywhere and nowhere. It constantly plays with things you've maybe heard, but can't quite recall. It's at once high and low brow, mimicking some criminally underheard guitarist in the Sahal, or a drunkard trying to recite the Rigveda from memory. The babbling of Charles and Alan are in either some unknown foreign language or complete gibberish, perhaps playing with some sort of postmodern idea of Western cultural appropriation and our often naive and hamfisted takes on "world" music, or maybe they were just high and fucking around.
An utter masterpiece, a no-brainer must-have piece of every music collection.