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Martin Bisi - Feral Myths

Martin Bisi Feral Myths coverEsteemed producer, engineer and studio owner Martin Bisi has been behind some seminal albums from Sonic Youth, Swans, Cop Shoot Cop, Silverfish, Naked City, Foetus and countless others. Reading up on Martin Bisi has been something of an education though. For instance, I had no idea his BC Studio was set-up with help from Material's Bill Laswell and money from Brian Eno - who recorded parts of Ambient 4: On Land there. Compulsiononline readers might be interested to know that the original name of the studio OAO Studio which stood for Operation All Out was taken from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Bisi also had a hand in the early recordings of Afrika Bambaataa and assisted Material with the recording and production of Herbie Hancock's 'Rockit' single at the studio in Brooklyn's Gowanus neighbourhood. It took a while for Bisi to become an artist in his own right and a bit longer before he started performing live. He remains grounded to his underground roots; and Feral Myths entwines elements of avant garde, exploratory rock, jazz and hip-hop while retaining a community spirit which has seen Bisi become a pivotal figure in various neighbourhood based projects and protests.

Feral Myths follows 2019's Solstice expanding the core of musicians and vocalists (Diego Ferri, Oliver Rivera Drew, Amanda White, Genevieve Fernworthy) behind that album with additional contributions from Dave Miller, Sara Fantry, Dylan Sparrow and others. His ear has always leaned towards the extreme and the experimental and there's plenty of that on Feral Myths but there's also an orchestral quality to the music, largely due to the number of operatic vocalists. They're not really songs with a typical verse chorus approach. Bisi's brings a producer's ear to the composition furnishing songs with dense layers and looser spaces.

Feral Myths opens to 'The Octave Bridge' powering to a surging hardcore sound, its energetic approach propelled by thunderous jazz rhythms. "Your mind explodes" he constantly screams. It's not totally direct or in your face, as Bisi, surrounds the thrash guitar in oscillating synth chime and layers of sustained voices accompanying his fervent spoken and sung parts, as the song evolves through several movements.

Feral Myths recounts tales of a wild state, of New York heroes and villains over the years, with random paranormal encounters. As a resident of Brooklyn's Gowanus neighbourhood where his esteemed BC Studio is situated, Bisi has been active in urban autonomy campaigning against the area's rezoning as well as engaging in Black Lives Matter protests. 'A Storm Called Ida', the lead single from the album, incorporates many of those themes in a stunning track about the night in 2021 when Hurricane Ida hit Gowanus causing severe and deadly flash flooding. Underpinned by clipped percussive rhythms and hip-hop beats, Bisi relates the terror felt the night the hurricane hit amidst free expressive guitar riffing. Its focus extends into the destruction caused, the impact of land gentrification and the denial of climate change which lead to the disaster: "We're running out of time, money leads, the planet bleeds, super storms, super droughts, super fires, super floods". Bisi's impassioned vocal contrasts with the pure operatic tones of Sara Fantry, her voice reflecting the power of the storm and the strength of community protests against climate change and increasing property prices. It's a powerful piece of social activism, ending on Tim Wyskida's first hand account about fleeing from the studio into the storm. The video of 'A Storm Called Ida' with Bisi leading a procession of swans, mermaids and beach goers through the streets of Gowanus, with images of the destruction caused by the storm is well worth watching.

From the roar of protesters and scraping guitars, 'Proud Boy 2 Way Mirror' lunges into stop-start hardcore riffing with additional discordant viola drone as Bisi ruminates on the love and hate espoused by the opposing factions found within the city. More so than the other tracks, this one captures the energy of the city created by those "heroes and villains". "Materialistic, nationalistic...misinformed, denier" he rasps, as the music twists and turns and operatic vocals soar, with Sara Fantry taking on a Klaus Nomi type vocal - one of the heroes mentioned in the lyrics. The use of protesters voices throughout only adds to the chaos within this one. Great stuff.

Bisi's vocal is mired in the sludgey guitars, whirring synths and weeping viola of 'Silver Guardians'. It all sounds detuned and atonal before it sweeps up operatic voices adding harmony to the apparent dissonance. Those operatic tones become more prominent and sustained elevating the track into something with an almost religious fervour, awakening the spirits that once inhabited the area.

Throughout Feral Myths Bisi draws out its orchestral quality mixing genres and styles but he really stirs things up on 'Avian Invasions' as it floats with Amanda White's soprano vocal soaring above Bisi's drawled tones, carried by waves of fuzz guitar and rolling rhythms. Combining myth with reality those predatory birds which "invade your home, invade your space" seem to act as a metaphor for the devastating impact of gentrification on social structures. The ethereal operatic vocals employed throughout Feral Myths create a contrast with Bisi's more earthbound tones further the disorientation and heighten the importance of the mythic aspect of the album. 'A Storm Called Ida' is itself gendered, while on 'Avian Invasions' both Bisi and Amanda White call on Helen of Troy "to be your guide".

A viola plays amidst the scattered chords of 'Esther Wins Again' a track redolent of a slowed down version of something from Sonic Youth's Sister album, which is quite fitting for a narrative about women winning throughout history. Stretching from Stormy Daniels' escapades with Trump to an an animist witch, over brooding guitars and synths Bisi's multi layered vocals toys with wordplay transforming history into our our story, your story, my story and ultimately into her story.

Elsewhere, propelled by some intricate drum rhythms, the see-saw jaggedy 'Mystery Of The Skin Suit' sways between Bisi's spoken tones and the tortured Lydia Lunch-esque screams of Mag Ne Ta Z'air. Set to an assemblage of overlapping and layered vocals 'The Brain's Riddle' attempts to make sense from confusion and overload - "My brain is dead, fried, brain is alive" - spread over ravaging detuned guitars emitting noise and feedback and reedy viola, synths and powerhouse rhythms.

The final track, 'The Great Trap In The Creek', also marked the beginning of the album when way back in 2016 Bisi recorded an improvised jam involving Diego Ferri (baritone guitar), Oliver Rivera Drew (drums) and Genevieve Fernworthy. Pieced together, it's a seamless collage of those differing elements with no obvious song structure. From wracked synths, it casts operatic vocals against crashing drums, continually threatening to burst into avant guitar noise. It doesn't. Bisi's voice arises over discordant textures as operatic voices wail and drums thunder as it sinks into layers of wayward guitars and synth noise and onwards into operatic voices over skittery drum patterns ebbing out into chiming guitar.

"Every record that's recorded in the studio is a story in and of itself. It's a story of my time in New York, every band I've worked with, so it's all of these diary entries," Bisi told NYS Music. Feral Myths works in this way too. As an experienced and legendary producer, he could have easily fixated on the more technical elements and created something perfect and sterile but as an activist within his community, Feral Myths gives voice to Bisi's revolutionary spirit. It is very much a New York album, blending myth with reality, where Bisi absorbs the differing elements of the city, drawing on the disparate styles he's recorded at his studio with an added twist. Vibrant, energised and agitating Feral Myths fights for what is right and you can't argue with that. I'm going to dig deeper into his own past releases and those already aware of his work do catch this; it's compelling stuff. Feral Myths is released via Black Freighter Records and is available digitally and as a CD from Martin Bisi bandcamp