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Published: 2002/03/20
by David Rioux

A Good Ass-Kicking Wears Many Faces – Bag: Theory

"Improvisational music" is a phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit on
this site, and for good reason. Many of the bands were inspired by the jazz
greats of a bygone era, as well as the explorational musings of the
psychedelic bands that soon followed. The main idea is to take a
traditional jazz or rock piece (with or without lyrics), and after a
somewhat respectable period of treatment, stretch the living hell out of
it — find a path and see where it leads you. Sometimes you end up back at
the same song, sometimes you end up in a different song entirely, and
sometimes form is pointless altogether.

But what if improvisation was your whole goal? What if you never
intended on having a planned form as it were? What if song titles
were merely labels hung on particular pieces of finely gelled musical
ramblings and nothing more than that? What if your point was to allow
things to develop out of the void and then to disseminate back into it —
never committing it/them to paper or thought in the attempt to be a purely
organic work in progress. In effect what you would have would be the Bag:
They originally formed in 1983 as Paper Bag, on the theory of taking
improvisational music into new territories. Then, through an unfortunate
process of membership line-up changes (one territory they are not that
original in), they renamed themselves Bag: Theory in 1999. Bag: Theory,
however different in membership, tries to maintain the original "Mission
Statement" set forth by the founding brothers of Paper Bag.

Now all of this would seem irrelevant if Bag: Theory went about their
mission in much the same way I tend to go about most of my life — off the
cuff. There are, in fact, a series of procedures, rules and objectives laid
out by the loosely knit visionaries that started this project — and all of
them can be found on the band’s website. They include how a piece gets
"conducted", how it gets its feel or mood, how solos are delegated out,
and, of course, how the hell they end the thing. There are a few other
interesting tidbits on history and rehearsals, as well as a some pretty neat
pictures (check out some of the instruments the have come up with).

So with all of that, you probably want to know what their latest release
A Good Ass Kicking Wears Many Faces sounds like, right? Well, so did
I. I expected a mixture of Tangerine Dream meets a 45 minute version of the
Grateful Dead doing "Space". What I got was a nice surprise. This album has
more music in it than most of the things I have heard by some of the
up and coming jambands. And by that I mean that there is always melody,
and rhythm being adhered to in one form or another. Granted, there are still
times one can har the band feeling their way down a dark corridor, but they
do it with
talent of the legally blind who have been doing it for some time now, and
they rarely knock over Aunt Ida’s favorite vase.
There is no doubt in my mind that these guys know what they are doing.
There are times when it resembles some very fine traditional jazz, other
times times delving into fusion, and still others (as the title suggests)
just some good ass kickin’. I also have some personal favorites. One of
which is "Dissed in New Orleans", which starts out simply with the congas
leading us on as a sinister guitar bleeds in. The keyboards then join in
with their own jovial pulsing effect that is both a separate rhythm and
melody that fits perfectly with the former. Soon you find yourself fully
in a beautiful piece that is haunting in its draw, yet a little comic at
the same time.
There are, of course, other songs that didn’t appeal to me as well,
either for their huge lack of form or the grinding sounds of excessive
dissonance. Even for a completely improvisational band, I don’t think all of
the cuts on this album warranted release. However, even for the most
critical listener there is a wide enough range so as to appeal to most
tastes. Whereas, for the more open-minded listener this is a definite must
hear. Two extended pinkies!

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