I once used to be addicted to buying CDs. Any extra money that I ever made in college went to Rhino Records, which was probably something like a 6 mile walk from where I lived round trip–I recall starving for 2 weeks once when I spent all my money on CDs and then didn’t have anything left to eat with. I ate 75 cent muffins out of the dorm vending machines. My musical horizons were expanding exponentially, I was devouring Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Terje Rypdal, and a whole other slew of amazing music that all seemed eventually interconnected as somehow there was always a musician on one set who had played with another musician who played . . . I developed a love and appreciation for the sound and aesthetics of the ECM label. It was not unusual for me to come back from the used CD aisles with 5-10 CDs clutched in my paws. I was always able to dig up some good shit that was probably too weird for its previous owner.
Those days are long gone, and it’s rare that I purchase a CD anymore, which is mainly due to the complete lack of any kind of adequate music stores in South Lake Tahoe. The last time I was in San Francisco, I went to Rasputin Records on Telegraph, and of course I had to buy some friggin’ CDs, the old CD addict in me was jolted awake like a coke fiend with a speedball. I managed to limit myself to only 2 CDs, which I was pretty proud of. These items were Cheikh Lo‘s latest, Lamp Fall, and John McLaughlin‘s latest, Industrial Zen. At first, I was slightly disappointed by each. Lamp Fall, because it is over-produced. Industrial Zen, because it’s got cheesy synthesizer sounds. However, with repeated listenings, both of these recordings develop depth and intricacy and warmth, and reward the listener who is willing to invest some effort in them.
I’m going to focus on McLaughlin’s Industrial Zen here, because it is the harder nut to crack. Let’s be honest: John McLaughlin has never been about accessibility or easy listening. He is a highly intelligent, virtuostic, and intensely spiritual musician who makes music on his own terms. I think what has always attracted me to his guitar playing is the sheer ferocity and ingenuity of his lightspeed licks. He is uncompromising in his ability, and he is similarly uncompromising in his songwriting as well, unhesitant with atonality, Indian influenced rhythms, and playfully dabbling in artful mixes of alternate beauty and chaos. His name is synonymous with the word ‘fusion.’
Unfortunately, to me, McLaughlin also has a fascination with high technology, with synthesizers and electronic drum kits and the like. I have nearly every album of his, from Extrapolation (1969) to Thieves and Poets, and now, Industrial Zen. And McLaughlin certainly has a cheesy streak running through him, I won’t lie. Albums embedded deeply in the 70s such as Visions of the Emerald Beyond and Inner Worlds attest to that. I love these albums, don’t get me wrong. But there’s definitely some cheesiness going on there. And I can dig it, I like a little cheese now and then, as I can openly admit being someone who owns just a little too many Dream Theater albums. The problem of cheesy, with John McLaughlin, is never a great danger, because he is just too good a musician for it ever to get in the way of his music. That said, I still have a hard time swallowing albums like Adventures in Radioland, when McLaughlin gets too much synthesized sound going on. It’s not that the music is bad, it’s just the sound that is hard to get past. And unfortunately, that synthesized sound is just abounding in all it’s glossy glory on Industrial Zen.
So when I put on the first track from Industrial Zen, the first thing I hear is that annoying synthesizer sound. And much of the remainder of the album is similarly drenched in the sound, and dammit, it just sounds cheesy. Goddammit, John, stop fucking around with the goddam synthesizers! But I’ve kept forcing myself to listen to the album (attempting to do it when no one else is around to ask me what the fuck I am listening to), and I have to admit, that over time, the album is beginning to grow on me.
Perhaps McLaughlin is aware of the effort of concentration and willpower which is required to get past the surface of his new album: it is called Industrial Zen, after all. One must essentially be a Zen master to shut out the annoyance of the Industrial synthesized sound effects. But with some effort, as always, McLaughlin’s music rewards. It is complex, virtuostic, and challenging. Not bad for an old man, really. He could just sit back and fart and play ballads on his acoustic, but instead, here he is again, pushing boundaries and sensibilities just like he did in the 70s with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And his guitar playing is still rocking, even while immersed in synthesized sound.
I wouldn’t recommend this album for the faint of heart. But if you’re willing to be challenged, McLaughlin delivers. He’s still fusing the hell out of everything he lays his fingers on.