PEK, the mastermind behind the Leap of Faith collective, produces a lot of music. Each release is not necessarily the definitive release, but, as I have written before, each is an incremental expansion on the greater project which is PEK's oeuvre. Per the man himself, each seeks to find "solutions to aesthetic problems posed by big ideas," through focusing one dimension of musical inquiry or configuration musical forces. Each is therefore a statement in its own right, but also inseparable from the greater picture, which is the relentless drive to create strange beauty out of chaos, or sometimes just to embrace that chaos as a wonderful disorder in and of itself.
The Riddle of Steel rests firmly in PEK's characteristic heavy free jazz aesthetic but is still a deviation from much of the rest of his catalog. The riddle (or ritual) commences with gongs, chimes, and various other metallic instruments and this unsteady exploration of resonance maintains for the first couple of minutes. Gradually, layers of synth, guitar (I think) and other manipulated sounds intermingle with the percussive clangor. Then like that of a shofar, the sounding of an unrecognized horn over warped electronics awakens the listener as PEK barks out an epic of creation and destruction (really, a series of spontaneously chosen excerpts from the Conan films and novels) in a guttural voice reminiscent of Oderus Urungus. (And, yes, there is something heavily metal about the way this odd and pounding piece is shaped by a reworked Conan narrative.) Then, the steel, horns, guitar, and electronics swell in affirmation and fade as the ceremony enters its second of numerous stages.
What follows is the peak-trough dynamic that PEK has spent so many years mapping, even if it is somewhat tempered here. Notable about this ensemble and, really, this specific recording is the underlying plodding rock rhythms laid by Mike Gruen on bass, Yuri Zbitnov on drums, and Bob Moores on guitar. Sure, PEK and Mike Caglianone's arsenal of horns and Eric Woods' and Joel Simches electronic contortions fill this trio out. PEK, of course, is aware of this direction and notes it several times on the release website, but the precise permutation of elements and inspirations remains somewhat elusive. At the risk playing the sounds-like game, Riddle of Steel evokes manic Zorn-inspired fusion, or contemporary Acid Mothers Temple with all the trippy spaciness and freak-rock proclivities but minus the relentless dance-hall drive. The periodic recitations, moreover, seem as much ritual as radio play that crosses Ornette's Science Fiction, Beefheart's absurdism, Zappa's strange musical theatrics and, as always, the Arkestra at their least melodic. The result is spirited but somewhat dark and perplexing.
I am still trying to figure out what this "riddle" actually means. Given the deep chthonic pretensions and the cut-and-paste approach to the sprawling Conan saga, however, I am not sure the riddle is really meant to be solved. Or, maybe I just need to listen more closely to the narrative. Anyway, somehow, like any good postmodern work, The Riddle of Steel is rewarding in its peculiarities and inscrutability rather than despite them, an album of good music. It is bizarre but oddly coherent in its ritualistic flow. And, it is gripping, through and through.
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