Listening to Sunn Trio’s “Mukhbir” feels like falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a dizzying and inventive track, lacing together cocktail jazz drums with honking horns and Arabic textures. The song sounds like Angelo Badalamenti doing world music. You could almost imagine it soundtracking a scene in Twin Peaks where The Black Lodge’s Red Room merges with an Arabian bazaar. Sinister dwarves, camels, blasting sands, silk draperies undulating in the dark: You can hear all these things in “Mukhbir.”
“Mukhbir” is the sixth track on Sunn Trio’s latest album, Fayrus . After releasing a beautiful, meditative series of improvised gamelan recordings earlier this year, Sunn Trio dropped an album of wild jazz-rock that picks up where they left off on their self-titled 2017 record. Headed by Joel Robinson, the local group melds together jazz, avant-garde rock, world music, noise, and improvisation to create an exotic and propulsive sound.
“Improv has always been one of the driving forces behind the group,” Robinson says. “There’s nothing like it – it’s almost a metaphysical state.”
Sunn Trio’s music harks back to that period in the 20th century when North African music and culture fascinated the Western world. Picture Brian Jones with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin tripping out on hashish, and brilliant Paul Bowles novels like The Sheltering Sky, and you’ve got a good grasp on the wavelength Sunn Trio is tapping into.
But the group is also tapping into another current: Phoenix’s past punk history. For starters, one of the band members is Elmo Kirkwood (whose father and uncle are the driving forces behind sun-baked Arizona punk OGs the Meat Puppets). Sunn Trio’s interest in world music also puts them in conversation with The Sun City Girls, who were so obsessed with exploring other musical styles and modalities that one of their own ended up starting his own world music label.
Robinson is quick to point out, though, that SCG aren’t a big influence on the group: “People always keep bringing up these Sun City Girls – I have no idea who these guys are.”
But Robinson and his group do take inspiration from the freewheeling ambition and style the old Arizona punk scene. “Those early Placebo Records comps had everything on them: industrial music, pure noise, prog rock, hardcore punk, free jazz. Just a totality of music,” Robinson marvels. “The Phoenix punk community was probably more progressive than the other punk rock scenes that were going on back then because they did whatever the hell they wanted to do. And I think that’s what punk rock is – I don’t think it’s this over-beaten hardcore thing. It’s the idea of doing whatever the hell it is that you want to do.”
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While Fayrus doesn’t sound like a punk record, it’s animated by that doing-whatever-the-hell-you-want spirit. Tape experiments play alongside jazz freakouts, splashes of gamelan, and sputtering electronics. The record can shift from moments of quiet contemplation to sensory overload.
Part of what makes Fayrus (and the band’s other records) so unpredictable is how they use both traditional composition methods and improvisation to piece their songs together. “For us, we keep going back to that improv aspect: taking a million different ways,” Robinson says.
Just when you think you know where Sunn Trio is going in a song, they find a way to trip you up and out. Listening to them is like chasing after a mirage in the desert: You’re bound to find something very different at the end of your journey.
Sunn Trio's Fayrus is out now. The group's next live performance will be at Phoenix Art Museum's PhxArtAmplified on Sunday, January 20.