Bane – Joey Arkenstat
Joey Arkenstat first turned up in Rising Low, Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s documentary about the making of Gov’t Mule’s excessive Deep End albums, a well-needed bit of levity in the form of a legendary fictional bassist. Or was he? (Cue spooky theremin.) The best I can figure, the record titled Bane and credited to Joey Arkenstat, basically amounts to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of former Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s brain. Cloaked in the musical costume of Arkenstat, Gordon (or a bassist who sounds an awful lot like him) is free to get as outlandish as he wants, so he creates a weaving and bobbing 45-minute all-segued suite of bass, bass, bass. It’s both utterly ridiculous and extraordinarily cool. Bane is something not whispered in the Phish world since the days of yore: a concept album. (Cue prog-guitars playing medieval riffs with head-banging pomposity.)
And the concept is that Mike Gordon is gonna rock your fuckin' socks off and pretend he's this other dude. He's gonna slap. He's gonna pop. He's gonna wank. He's never stoppin'. What it amounts to is that Bane is so absurd that it’s psychedelic. (Cue angel choirs and shimmering xylophones and crap.) Taboot, Gordon finally did what a certain school of dorky Phish fan has wanted for years: for the band to just shut up and play their guitars. The preliminaries are brief and obscure: Arkenstat has a bizarre stereo-panned Lee "Scratch" Perry-like conversation with himself, Gordon begins chanting, and then the bass starts. (Cue bass.)
Quickly, the main instrument is doubled, maybe even tripled and quadrupled. Only a cartoon character could (or, more significantly, would want to) play bass like this. And then you look at a picture of Arkenstat. And you look at a picture of Gordon. (Cue lightbulb.) The basses lose themselves in weird swirls of pedal steel ("Island Remedy," "Copper March"), abstractly developing vocal themes ("Listen Ray"), cryptically chanted lyrics submerged deep under the chording ("Zam Zamf"), echoing production ("Shoof"), and – yeah – occasionally the voice of that guy who calls himself Joey Arkenstat ("Region").. It’s a very real progression from the abrupt cinematics of Gordon’s previous home-brewed studio effort, last summer’s long-time-coming, slightly unwieldy Inside In. Though there are vocals and even discernible lyrics scattered throughout, Bane very much feels like an instrumental album, perhaps due to the songs’ amorphously shifting structures. The vocals always serve the bass, just another texture, no different from Larry Campbell’s pedal steels and fiddles. (And what the hell is Larry Campbell, Bob Dylan sideman and roots session-dude extraordinaire, doing here anyway? He’s certainly more than welcome, I’m just curious…)
Most heartingly, Bane is held together by the fact that it feels fundamentally homemade, a truly personal expression of music. Besides Campbell, this is not a guest-laced hootenanny with a major label budget, nor even a funk dance party. (Cue "Cissy Strut.") It’s not exactly a solo album proper, either, but it certainly feels like it was made in the wee hours at a home studio. (Cue drop to whisper.) This was made without regard for commercial potential, and it achieves more for it. It’s hard to imagine Bane selling many copies outside of the Phish universe, but – if there is any justice – it will have a long shelf life as a cult classic, the kind that DJs sample when they need one last dab of obscurity to top off a beat.
For now, it's the opening salvo in the post-Phish world, even if it wasn't intended as such. Released a scant week after the band's end at Coventry, Bane might also be the first Phish-related album in a long while (besides Gordon and Leo Kottke’s Clone) that is unequivocally cool, without the need for quantifiers, contexts, and apologies. Get comfy, get evangelical. Sgt. Arkenstat’s Lonely Bassists’ Club Band is here. We hope that you enjoy the show. (Cue Bane.)