Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Last Exit

  • The Noise of Trouble (Live in Tokyo) [Enemy, 1987] B+
  • Head First Into the Flames [DMG/ARC, 1992] **
  • Iron Path [ESP-Disk', 2015] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Noise of Trouble (Live in Tokyo) [Enemy, 1987]
The return of free jazz was inevitable in this time of '60s nostalgia, and believe me, it could be a lot worse. At least Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson revert to rhythm when the path of pure inspiration peters out, and Sonny Sharrock is without sonic peer. Somewhat less imposing is the group's unacknowledged center, West German saxophone legend Peter Brötzmann, but Ornette himself couldn't make consistent music out of a concept that eschews not only heads but rehearsal, and he probably wouldn't want to. Consistency's not the idea--becoming is, and those who'd rather watch childbirth movies may have a point. All three of the group's albums are live. Last Exit documents the blinding headache of their first gig and is often played by Lester Bangs to keep angels and rock critics away. My sentimental favorite is Cassette Recordings 87--because its Jimmy Reed cover is "Big Boss Man," because its "Ma Rainey" mentions Alexander Pope, and because half of it was recorded in Allentown. But this is the one that actually comes together. The so-called suite kind of is, "Panzer Be-Bop" is pure atonal convergence, and Herbie Hancock sticks in his two cents like he knows what for. B+

Head First Into the Flames [DMG/ARC, 1992]
Free jazz made up on the spot, and although their guitarist died in 1994 and their drummer in 2013, I bet they have more brutalist live stuff in the can ("So Small, So Weak, This Bloody Sweat of Loving," "No One Knows Anything") **

Iron Path [ESP-Disk', 2015]
Sole studio album from latter-day free jazz ensemble comprising hyperactive New York mastermind Bill Laswell on bass, German freedom honker Peter Brötzmann on sax, harmolodic beatmaster Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, and stronger-than-Blood Sonny Sharrock blowing tunes up on guitar. Having folded all three of their live caterwauls into one hedged pick in 1987, I missed the real album a year later, but 27 years after that it still rocks. Studio provenance is the ticket. There's a shape and specific gravity to these 10 sub-five-minute tracks that I attribute to Laswell, who's always specialized in getting legible music out of the avant fringe, and a life force I attribute to Jackson even more than Sharrock--solid as the music is, he never stops bubbling under. When non-jazzer Chuck Eddy included all four Last Exit albums in his Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, this was his favorite, e.g.: "Sick steers in a farm field moo amid a tornado, then Sonny Sharrock's guitar starts yanking the sound back in, restating a warped melody from one of his own records. Ronald Shannon Jackson's traps bulldoze the mess, Peter Brötzmann's sax heads up a battle-charge. A chariot driver cracks his whip, shouts 'Hyah! Hyah!' . . . " But while the label is hyping this fierce reissue by claiming kinship with drone-metal doomsters like Earth and Blut aus Nord, I don't hear it. The drums are just too uppity. A-