Mount Carmel arrive on the radar screen via the Siltbreeze label, an eclectic, stridently underground concern that has slowly accumulated one of the strongest discographies of the last twenty-five years. Rarely has a Siltbreeze release garnered much ballyhoo outside of the deep pockets of the subterranean scene, most often because the artists are gleefully hanging out in the deep weeds of left field. Occasionally though, certain acts on the imprint were plainly ahead of the pack: Guided By Voices and Times New Viking being two examples. Naturally, Siltbreeze was done with ‘em before they hit the major leagues. Mount Carmel however is a much different affair, for they feel absolutely frozen in time somewhere around the midsection of Nixon’s first term. “Blue Cheer gone blues rock” might be a fine one sentence description of what these guys are up to, shedding illuminating brevity on their mixture of blunted, strychnine-laced hooliganism and stern non-studious heaviosity. Another descriptive avenue would entail how the record vibes mightily like a collector’s curio of the rough mixes from a 1970 LP by an unknown band whose one chance at notoriety never made it beyond the test pressing stage. Bummer for those guys. I should add that the blues rock on display here lacks the critically approved touches of John Mayall or Cream or the early Allman Brothers, opting instead for the hard, unsubtle unrefined attack associated with names like Humble Pie. Thankfully, Mount Carmel sidesteps an often unfriendly aspect of that sound, namely the tendency for the vocals to sink into overly emotive, strained caterwauling. Matt Reed’s pipes instead strive for a doomy restraint that’s quite effective. Even with tasteful vocals, this is still dangerous territory, since inspection of the field has shown that what once felt novel and progressive is now bombastic and retrograde. It’s become an established part of rock lore that Black Sabbath began as an unrecorded blues-rock venture named Earth. While the first Sab album certainly retains remnants of bastardized bluesy mauling, I’ve always fancied that Earth excelled at a dense, swollen sound that coalesced on the British countryside and bludgeoned the handful of mead-blasted rustic pub-dwellers that actually managed to hear it while lounging by a hearth full of burning peat. And of course this is wishful thinking: there is simply no way Earth were this good that early. If they were, we’d have some recorded evidence. But Mount Carmel suggest this fictive woodshedding with well-practiced precision and are thoroughly descended from the short hazy period when hard rock had yet to begat the problem child known as heavy metal. Their cover of Ten Years After’s “Hear Me Calling” speaks to the band’s deep catalogue sensibility, and listeners with a kind disposition toward STONEDHENGE (from whence “Here Me Calling” originates) or The Jeff Beck Group’s underrated TRUTH should be similarly disposed toward this fine debut. That it brushes up against the dusted hard-psyche of the Cheer’s OUTSIDEINSIDE is seriously bonus. When people utter the words “like punk never happened”, it’s usually either a putdown or a falsehood (or both). In the case of Mount Carmel, it’s as fitting as a joy buzzer in the sweaty palm of a gills-loaded Legionnaire, though the impact is substantially more powerful. Is this stoner rock? Hmmm. That’s open for debate. It certainly could be. The ball, as they say, is in your court. You holding?
Charlie Parker’s influence on the shape of Modern Jazz was so widespread that he’s now in a weird historical spot where his significance is undeniably respected, his impact is still felt and his actual recordings are undervalued. To be clear, his stuff is still actively listened to, but Parker’s style was so transformative on the subsequent avenues explored on the alto sax that when many people hear him for the first time, which is quite often out of chronological context (as it was for me), his playing sounds very familiar. Like Elvis Presley, Bird was a mammoth game-changer, but as an instrumentalist in a non-pop form his legacy surely suffered from legions of players adapting his moves wholesale, a fate that Elvis escaped. Or to clarify, when people ape ol’ El’s moves they’re called impersonators. In Parker’s case, they get categorized as disciples. It’s true that many who fell under the saxophonist’s influence were exceptional artists in their own right (Sonny Criss, Cannonball Adderley and Phil Woods to name three), but as Charles Mingus later so eloquently editorialized on MINGUS DYNASTY, “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”. While many copied him artistically, others copied him onto tape playing live, with Dean Benedetti’s obsessive documentation of Parker’s solos (just the solos!) being the most notorious example. Future Mingus trombonist Jimmy Knepper, a running partner of sax player Benedetti, also made recordings during the same period that later appeared on Mingus’ Jazz Workshop label. Few musicians can survive the brutality inflicted upon their art by a rudimentary tape recorder in 1950. On BIRD AT ST. NICK’S Parker does, though a curious newbie should definitely begin with the Dial and Savoy Masters, simply some of the most beguiling and enduring music ever recorded. In addition there are numerous professionally rendered live dates on disc that amplify Parker’s stature as the undisputed master of the bop alto. And while those recordings help form the foundation of Bird’s oeuvre, ST. NICK’S hangs on the outskirts, serving as a raw directive to the commonplace brilliance of the man before his habits and demons took their toll. Make no mistake though, if you’re coming to this platter looking to hear underrated pianist Al Haig or bop bass mainstay Tommy Potter you might just end up pacing in front of yr stereo in a huff. But then again, listening to Parker and young drummer Roy Haynes improvise in relative audible isolation, where Haig and Potter aren’t heard but rather felt, could possibly present an alternate path of appreciation. It’s in these serendipitous exercises of intense devotion where the ear can begin to locate Parker as a human figure, as just another working musician making incredible strides in the huge upswing of creativity splashed upon the American canvas post-Second World War, his sharp and fluid expression somewhat unburdened from the canonical status he holds as a genius of collaboration and advanced melodic ideas. Yes, the existence of what are essentially urban field recordings (or some of the earliest bootlegs, perhaps) intensifies the rush of adoration/worship that Parker instigated, but it also accurately depicts him as a player who paid the bills by doing gigs, just like any number of less fortunate and now forgotten figures on the scene. In jazz, even the most innovative of musicians must prove it on the bandstand with regularity and routine, elevating the everyday to the profound. Here, Bird flows casually but with cutting intensity, with Red Rodney’s trumpet occasionally announcing its presence, distant and a little bit ghostly. Probably due to the basic nature of the recording, Haynes’ kick-drum attains a disproportionate prominence that, while certainly inaccurately representative of this outstanding drummers’ style, can still acquire a pleasingly thunderous momentum. As the music progresses there are moments of sonic clarity that allow for Haig’s talent to explicitly register, particularly on “Out Of Nowhere”, and “Hot House” initiates a three-track sequence where all the participants’ contributions are actually (imperfectly) audible. Again, many will find this record frustrating instead of revelatory. BIRD AT ST. NICK’S is definitely not for all temperaments, but as it plays it’s readily apparent why Mingus prompted its release, for the flawed but vigorous glimpse provided deepens the portrait of a truly valuable artist. To my ears, the essence at its core exceeds any sonic limitations at hand, and pulls Charles "Yardbird" Parker blowing and wailing from the hallowed halls of fame (way up there) and into the hot here and now (right down here). Maybe you’ll feel the same.