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My Cat is an Alien/Jean-Marc Montera/Lee Ranaldo, "MCIAA XX Anniversary"

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cover imageThe Opalio brothers close an exceptionally productive year with this third and final release of 2019.  I suppose just about every My Cat is an Alien release could be described as a live album, given the duo's devotion to "spontaneous composition," but this one is live in the traditional sense: it was performed in front of an actual audience.  More specifically, it is a document of a 20th anniversary concert that the brothers gave in their hometown of Torino back in 2018.  As befits such an auspicious occasion, the Opalios were joined by a pair of their favorite collaborators: Lee Ranaldo and French composer/guitarist Jean-Marc Montera.  Needless to say, it is always fascinating to see what transpires when unpredictable outside elements are invited into Maurizio and Roberto's shared consciousness and this release is no exception, as the quartet gradually wind their way into some truly uncharted frontiers in mind-melting, cosmic psychedelia.


I sincerely doubt that there is much that rattles Lee Ranaldo at this point in his career, but the prospect of sharing a stage with My Cat is an Alien for a spontaneously improvised live performance would probably be an extremely daunting endeavor for a lot of artists.  For one, a huge amount of one's previously acquired musical knowledge would be instantly irrelevant (or even a liability), as the My Cat is an Alien aesthetic long ago transcended the use of any conventional scales, chords, harmonies, or rhythms.  Secondly, Maurizio and Roberto Opalio have been closely collaborating for two decades now and they are very much on a wavelength that is uniquely their own.  Furthermore, rehearsing or planning out how the performance should unfold is very much anathema to the MCIAA vision.  Given their past work with both the Opalios and each other, however, both Ranaldo and Montera showed up with some solid intuitions about how they could seamlessly expand the MCIAA vision without running roughshod over its essential character.  In fact, for the first ten minutes or so, it is almost possible to forget that Ranaldo and Montera are even present at all, as they mostly just hang back and provide a percussive backdrop to Roberto's queasily spectral vocalizing.  For his part, Ranaldo does periodically take the microphone to contribute some spoken word, but it never becomes the focal point.  Rather, it has the feel of a fragmented overheard conversation with an enigmatic context and an elusive trajectory.  Once Ranaldo and Montera shift their focus to their guitars, however, the performance rapidly snowballs into a visceral and explosive twist on the Opalios' smeared and swirling deep space reveries.    

Obviously, getting to experience a noise-ravaged and volcanic twist on the Opalios' hallucinatory maelstrom of alientronics and repurposed toys is a huge part of XX Anniversary's appeal, but there are also some wonderfully transcendent moments along the way that feel like something altogether new.  While I would be hesitant to say that the performance is ever less than otherworldly, the quartet sometimes delve into evocative passages that feel like something distinctly different from the Opalios' expected transmissions from the outer reaches of the universe.  The most surprising one occurs quite early on, as there is a brief window where the performance feels like an ancient ritualistic dance, as the foursome's palette is pared down to little more than bells and an Irish frame drum.  That stage of the piece's evolution is admittedly short-lived, however, as the ensemble soon finds their way into some even more unfamiliar vistas.  Moments later, for example, it sounds like a cartoon robot is falling down a flight of stairs as a churning bed of guitar noise howls and a tight formation of jet fighters strafes the neighborhood.  Other times, the endlessly shifting cacophony resembles musique concrète, a roomful of strange and clattering mechanized installations, air raid sirens, or a violently distorted public address system getting sucked into another dimension.  There are also some moments in which the quartet sound exactly like My Cat is an Alien, but the best possible version of it, approximately an even more nightmarish version of Tarkovsky’s Solaris in which scores of disturbed and jabbering memory-ghosts emerge from the walls all at once.

The only caveat with this album's adventurously shifting trajectory is that it unavoidably carries some significant instability and ephemerality along with it: there are definitely some passages that I wish had lingered and evolved much longer before being subsumed by the next wave.  That tends to comes with the territory in any four-way improvisation though, so the important thing is whether or not the rewards are significant enough to counterbalance that tendency.  In the case of XX Anniversary, I would emphatically say that they are: Montera and Ranaldo steer the Opalios into some truly fascinating territory that they never would have gotten to on their own.  In fact, there are a handful of themes that could easily form the core of their own full-length albums if Maurizio and Roberto had any interest at all in revisiting or cannibalizing their past work.  Of course, they do not, so the most beautiful moments on XX Anniversary are exactly that: flashes of brilliance documented at their moment of conception, but destined to never appear again in any other form.  For the most part, it is the sheer number of such moments that make this performance a compelling and one-of-a-kind listening experience.  Beyond that, I quite enjoyed some of the more unfamiliar elements and juxtapositions that found their way into this album, such the acoustic percussion or the way that Roberto's rattling and broken-sounding "self-made double-bodied string instrument" blended with the guitar noise of his collaborators.  XX Anniversary does not quite offer the same pleasures as some of MCIAA's more focused and sustained plunges into the lysergic depths, but this alternative course is quite a satisfying experience in its own right.  I wish I lived closer to Torino.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Saturday, 14 December 2019 11:37  


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