Terry Riley - Reed Streams / Les Yeux Fermés & Lifespan (Elision Fields CDs)
More reissues! I couldn't pass up the chance to tell you all about two records you surely must've heard or heard of by now. Elision Fields have undertaken the task of reissuing long-gone slices from the Organ of Corti's Terry Riley Archive Series, I believe the first was "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band: All Night Flight" (which I reviewed last year or whenever it came about) and these are the two newest. "Reed Streams" is a reissue of Riley's first record from 1966, originally containing the "Untitled Organ" and "Dorian Reeds" pieces, remastered here and joined up with a 1970 performance of "In C" by Montreal's L'Infonie. Must've missed that one. The latter record reissues two 1970's Riley soundtracks on one CD: 1972's "Les Yeux Fermés" and 1974's "Lifespan". It's the first time either has seen a CD release, and Elision Fields have remastered everything from the original tapes.
The two "Reed Streams" tracks ("Untitled Organ" and "Dorian Reeds") were recorded on November 4th and 5th of 1966 in Riley's New York City studio, and both feature the use of his time lag accumulator. Over the 20 minutes it takes "Untitled Organ" to unfold, Riley creates a whirlpool of subtly-shifting sound via constantly reverberating, well, reed streams. His fingers move across the keys with almost alarming speed, channelling intense flares of organ phrases that after a while start to sound like they're looping back over eachother. Of course, because the piece is so rigidly executed with an almost mechanical precision, any misstep on the part of Riley's hands is almost like being jolted out of a hypnosis-induced dream, but luckily (and amazingly considering the accuracy required to make this piece work) it doesn't happen often, and it isn't too long before Riley's echoey undertow swallows you whole and the track is over before you know it. "Dorian Reeds" works a similar pulse but uses soprano saxophone and tape recorders instead, allowing Riley to actually loop sounds instead of just creating the illusion of doing so. The foundation of the piece is a series of fluttery and dizzying saxophone spirals, with Riley using strategically placed notes to punctuate and create a skewed rhythm to work off of. At times the saxophone drones melt together and take on an almost harmonic nature, other times they're so brash and vibrant it almost stings. Despite using similar techniques, "Dorian Reeds" isn't nearly as heavenly as "Untitled Organ" (owing largely to the differences in instrument) but still an overwhelming, inspiring listen. For the bonus track, Quebecois psych/prog colletive L'Infonie, led by Walter Boudreau, perform their take on Riley's legendary "In C" (here retitled "In C (Mantra)") and risk stealing the spotlight altogether. Utilizing a big band approach and combining everything from the aforementioned psychedelia and prog rock to jazz and funk approaches to post-rock and that Animusic stuff I always see on PBS, the group morph "In C" into an incredibly catchy and certifiably weird rock journey. I swear if you hear this and don't want to start air drumming along to the insane xylophone-cum-gamelan beat or rocking out alongside the sludgy bass line and effusive horns, you've got no pulse. Imagine a completely ecstatic (and likely stoned) version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor meeting Acid Mothers Temple (whose own version of "In C", while fine in its own right, pales compared to this one) playing a Terry Riley tune, maybe by way of the Forever Bad Blues Band, and you've got L'Infonie, at least on this track. The Riley pieces on their own would make this CD good enough, but the "In C (Mantra)" pushes it into the realm of the must-own.
"Les Yeux Fermés & Lifespan" represent two of Terry Riley's earliest attempts to move away from tape manipulation and composing and into keyboard cycles and improvisation. The first of the two 18-minute tracks that make up "Les Yeux Fermés", "Journey from the Death of a Friend", uses electronic organ phrases in a bubbling, pre-industrial (think Coil circa "...And the Ambulance Died in His Arms") tonal excursion. For the most part though, the near-synthesizer tones of the organ sound somewhat cheesy and dated, almost bordering on the (gasp) new-agey stuff that I usually find Riley so deft at avoiding. I'll freely admit I've never heard the track in conjunction with the movie, though, so I've no idea how well it works from a soundtrack standpoint. The other track, "Happy Ending", uses organ and saxophone loops (akin to "Dorian Reeds"), moving through lengthy stretches first of the former (in charming, slinking tones) and the latter (in soulful, almost jazzy mode). The result hints at surrealist film noir drama up until the terrific, piano-induced catharsis that slowly draws the proceedings to a close. "Lifespan" features six shorter tracks, all of which see Riley whittling his minimalist stylings down into more digestible morsels, and represent certainly some of his most varied work I've yet to hear. "G Song" and "The Oldtimer" combine electronic organ with jazz sensibilities, while "M-Music I-Inside C-Curved E-Entrances" and "Slow Melody in Bhairavi" and imbued with a Middle Eastern aura as evidenced through the use of tabla on "MICE" and the languid, hookah-tinged harmonies in "Slow Melody". Curiously, the two longest tracks are the stand-outs. The six-minute ambient vocal/organ phrase loops of "In the Summer" are pure euphoria, surely as equally influential to Fennesz as they were to the Who on "Baba O'Riley". The 12-minute "Delay", using lower-register organ dronings and icy, paralyzing drones reminiscent of Hermann Nitsch's Harmoniumwerks, slowly builds to a frenzied pitch that once again sees Riley's fingers dancing mischeiviously across the keys, similar in spirit to "Untitled Organ" and bringing the whole set back around full circle.
If you were picking between the two I'd give "Reed Streams" the clear nod, especially to the curious listener and not the full-blown Riley (or school of minimalism) devotee to whom "Les Yeux Fermés & Lifespan" would appeal more directly. Either way, it's great to have more and more of Riley's seminal work in print and available once again. I for one can't wait to see what other fruits Elision Fields are busy digging up and dusting off for our collective consumption.
Click here to listen to MP3 samples from the above albums