The Strange Strings Ensemble, "One for Ra"
It fair to say that any album involving the Opalio brothers is destined to be memorably bizarre, but this Sun Ra-inspired EP takes My Cat is an Alien's vision even further out into fringes of outsider psychedelia than usual. For one, it is almost entirely acoustic, so there are no alientronics or psychotropic drones to be found and Roberto's queasily floating vocals seem (mostly) absent as well. Obviously, that eliminates nearly everything "familiar" about MCIAA's vision, so it makes a lot of sense to give this project a fresh name. In lieu of the expected alien terrain, the ensemble (rounded out by writer Philippe Robert & Jo√´lle Vinciarelli) "spontaneously composed" a visceral, churning, and jagged eruption using the "ancient, mostly ethnic, acoustic string instruments from Vinciarelli's vast collection." In keeping with the Sun Ra theme, the instruments were purposely untuned in homage to the late jazz icon's 1967 Strange Strings album, which Ra dubbed "a study in ignorance" (the Arkestra were given an eclectic array of oft-foreign string instruments that they did not know how to play). Unsurprisingly, critic Sean Westergaard's assessment of that polarizing Sun Ra opus is even more true of its spiritual heir: "If you don't like 'out,' stay clear of this one." I, however, am quite fond of "out," so I very much enjoyed this brief, singular, and synapse-frying detour.
This album is the result of two different collaborations that unexpectedly and happily converged into one, as the Opalios and Robert worked together on the recently published Free Jazz Manifesto, which is a compendium of "must-have classics" and "indispensable curiosities" from that adventurous, forward-thinking milieu. Naturally, Saturn's most famous son is featured therein, so Sun Ra's wildest and most outr√© moments were likely something that the Opalios were revisiting and consciously thinking about around the time that Eternal Beyond II was being recorded at Vinciarelli's studio. Consequently, it made perfect sense to pull in Robert (a non-musician) for a spirited tribute to Sun Ra's classic study in ignorance. The scraping, scrabbling, and sawing cacophony that ensued calls to mind a post-apocalyptic junkyard band armed with little more than a broken grandfather clock, a piano soundboard strung with rusted barbed wire, and some metal files. That ragged and squealing maelstrom is arguably anchored by some looped, wordless vocals from Vinciarelli and a pulsing pedal tone for a while, but it ultimately becomes an untethered runaway train of heaving, churning, and squealing intensity. Fans of sharp, metallic harmonics take note, as this album is very much for you. While I suspect One for Ra is not intended as a major release given that the whole convulsing and screeching mindfuck barely lasts 17 minutes, that duration feels just about right for such a gleefully challenging and dissonant free-form firestorm. Sun Ra would be proud.
Samples can be found here.