Music News

Last Days of May

Time for a Jimi Hendrix moment.

Imagine, for just a minute, that you're shuffling around on a Manhattan sidewalk outside the Fillmore East one late December 1969 afternoon. Longhaired, pock-faced roadies have been rolling gear into the legendary venue for a couple of hours, and you notice that a pair of them who've just cut out and down the alley for a smoke break accidentally left a side door ajar. Naturally, you seize the opportunity and slip in. Wandering down a corridor, you abruptly turn, push through a thick red velvet curtain, and suddenly there you are standing stage right, jaw slowly dropping below your knees: No less than 20 feet away is the Band of Gypsies, jamming in all its pre-concert glory, oblivious not only to your presence but to just about everything else in this otherwise busy intersection of roadies, lighting techs, sound men, concession vendors, etc.

Sadly, this review is no Lewis Shiner novel; you can't go back in time to witness the great rock stars in all their unadorned private candor. But you can go out and snap up Radiant Black Mind, the second album from Virginia's Last Days of May. Led by none other than guitar icon-in-exile Karl Precoda, the original ax mastermind of the late, great Dream Syndicate who bailed midway through the group's tenure and basically disappeared, LDOM makes a freeform, feedback/wah-wah/echoplex-drenched squall the likes of which haven't been heard since the heyday of St. Jimi & Co.

Okay, maybe there have been other groups over the past three decades to set their controls for the heart of the native son; surely a legion of fretmasters, some inspired and soulful (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and some technically perfect but starched (Steve Vai), have traipsed across this musical landscape with regularity. But Precoda, for anyone who witnessed firsthand his particular brand of nuclear fission back in the day, always "got" Hendrix from a different angle, grasping how the man played the spaces between the notes. This intuitive, almost primitive approach continues with LDOM, and if you're a fan of interstellar jamming, this note's for you, bub.

Radiant Black Mind is, like its 1997 predecessor, Last Days of May, an instrumental live album that runs for 46 minutes. In that three-quarters of an hour, you're confronted with a daunting array of devices: white-hot sheets of noise, serene strokes of aquatic melodies, minimalist chordal plucks and harmonic tings, welling-up-from-Hades explosions of pure rawk abandon. As with most "psychedelic instrumental" compositions, the renderings can be abstract and disorienting; but they can be depthlessly beautiful and moving, too. Essentially a power trio with a fourth member adding subtle, textural keyboard augmentation, LDOM is a throwback. Yet it's the kind of mind-melting throwback that references a period in rock history when pop, rock, jazz and blues all collided under the nominal banner of "psychedelia" and which additionally fueled some of history's most intense and fruitful explorations of the physical and psychological properties of music.

There are numerous sonic epiphanies on this disc, but one particularly astonishing moment occurs midway into the 12-minute "Apollo Cabinfire." Right at the apex of an aggressive string-mauling segment from Precoda, as a Mellotron-sounding keyboard drones ominously beneath his flourishes, an indescribable tension builds up; at the precise, perfect moment, the rhythm section kicks into overdrive (the bassist seems to yank it to "11"), and the listener is given that free rocket ride to the stars he's been waiting for. It's called "release," and LDOM understands the need for it.

The near-telepathic interaction of LDOM suggests long hours of rehearsal and experimentation -- and more than a little time spent with ears pressed collectively against the home stereo unit divining the secrets of Miles, of Coltrane, of Jimi. As such, there's an uncommon intimacy that graces this album. The effect upon you is not unlike the fantasy scenario outlined before: peek through the curtains, and there you'll see 'em, lost in their private sonic reverie, jamming for the gods.

Note: As record reviews routinely fail to note the patronage behind such endeavors, be aware that the label issuing this disc, Blacksburg, Virginia-based Squealer, has navigated an impressive roster over the past few years, issuing everything from free jazz (William Hooker, Charles Curtis) to "out"-rock (Rake, Tower Recordings) to avant-psych indie rock (Spatula, Refrigerator, Tono-Bungay). The brain child of former 'zine editor Butch Lazorchak, Squealer combines the best instincts and aesthetics of such pioneers as Homestead, Touch & Go, SST, etc. Contact the label on the Web at

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Fred Mills