Well I was one of those who never heard the original, and judging (no pun intended) by this rather lovely and compellingly complex beauty currently occupying my soundstage, I'm glad that Udi Koomran and AlrOck took the time to re-release it as a Nerve Institute waxing, much to the surprise of the main man as I am led to believe.
The Nerve Institute are effectively a one-man band, with Mike Judge playing all manner of instruments, with the focus of his talents being on the guitar and the drums, as well as manipulating all manner of electronic sonic trickery found at the bottom of this garden of earthly delights. Married to his skill as an arranger, the end result is about as far removed from the dreaded "one man in his shed with a laptop" variety of solo effort as can be imagined. Guesting on a couple of tracks is Jacob Holm-Lupo of White Willow, fleshing out Grimoire - which he co-wrote with Mike - with extra guitar, and City of Narrows with additional keyboards. Other than Grimoire Mike wrote everything here. A satisfying mix of art rock, psychedelia, off-kilter song writing and punky energy, the record rollicks along at a fair old pace.
This is a big, bold, psychedelic stew of a record, and labyrinthine in its complexity. Much like a good maze it is a delight to get utterly lost within its Gordian Knot-like twists and turns. Mike's guitar has a Zappa flavour, with occasional dashes of Bill Nelson, but it is a style that is his own. The cleverly put together ensemble playing is quite mesmerising, easily giving the feel of a full band.
Having started out as a drummer and bass player in the punk scene of Kansas City, Mike is no slouch behind a kit, and this is a pleasant surprise, for it is often in the drumming department that one-man projects tend to suffer. If he ever gets the chance, this music would come over just right in a live setting. No doubt intentionally claustrophobic in places, this dense sonic template would suit a cramped "club in a cellar" type surrounding. Mind you, unless Mike has had a change of heart since writing The Nerve Institute's Prog Archives entry, any live appearances are somewhat unlikely. He hasn't played his material live for years, apparently "due variously to a distaste for teaching people to play it to my tremendously anal standards, disgust with the whole enterprise of The Music Business and, frankly, with audiences in general..." That and the fact that his music now seems secondary to his writing - a novel is in progress - shame!
Opening song The Confidence-Man has an air of a more focused Syd Barrett about it, replete with early Floyd-like synth squiggles and jangling psychedelic guitar, taking the song through a lens backwards and on into a veritable zoo of sound and percussive rattles. A great start to a thoroughly absorbing album. This nascent psychedelia continues into the hypnotic City of Narrows, where we fly off down narrow dimly lit alleyways, zipping along just above the rough ground, our way lit by jazzy sparks in the sonic ether. A lovely guitar break winds its way round your heart and you are stolen.
Knives of Winter/Coronation Day skitters up and down an Escher staircase, presaging another great guitar break, this time with a definite Zappa feel, before ending on a fairground ride, the effects-drenched guitar screaming away with a fiendish grin on its face. And so we trip off into Mike's surreal sound world, perfectly complimented by the Hieronymus Bosch cover art, jarringly but effectively contrasted with photos of cityscapes at night.
Mike goes into deep analytical detail into the origins and meanings of his songs in the TPA interview, and he is obviously a highly intelligent man, and a deep thinker. In the Leprosarium for example uses disembodied quotes from J G Ballard and " the electronically-altered voices are reading something I found at a shut-down mental hospital in rural Missouri". Here's another brief lift from the interview: "Knives of Summer...is about modes of unofficial, non-state-sanctioned reality which have fallen into disuse and been replaced by whatever the official epistemology of the era is – first it’s nature, then it’s religious dogmatism, then it’s Reason, then it’s empiricism, now it’s a toxic combination of scientific literalism and capitalist doctrine". Suffice to say that this does not and should not serve as background music. When you give it your full attention it will not leave you weary as some "difficult" music can do, for as complex as Fictions is, it is actually easy to listen to. However, easy listening it is most certainly not!
The dreamy space-ballad Whistling Wire, a delightfully fizzy construct, contains some marvellously reverb-drenched power chording that had me recalling Brit psych rockers Levitation. Knives of Summer is a musical tour de force, and Rayuela, despite its slight oddness has an underlying Iberian feel. With a title like With Joy We Espy the Sacrophagus, this song was either going to be a Zappa-like construct, or head off into the more esoteric end of Canterbury, and it turns out to be both at once, but rising above its influences. There are nods to Dave Stewart in the keyboard stylings, and the arrangement and guitar give it the feel of Zappa fronting National Health. That ticks a couple of boxes for me!
Heading off into Phil Miller territory, the guitar in Grimoire, possibly by Jacob Holm-Lupo is a delight. Meanwhile, back in Spain, Abrazo y caminando - possibly "Embrace and Go" - swirls its skirts right next to your table, with a devilish glint in its eye.
The album ends with a stroll through the quarantine area of avant-symphonic rock and angularity with Docile Bodies/In The Leprosarium, cut off from the outside world in a haze of disease. More soaring guitar moves that remain elegant amid sundry time signature shifts take us through a place where all is not as it seems. Much like, say, The Mars Volta at their early peak, this music never quite does what you expect. Each time you listen to it, there is something else revealed. Listening to the ultra-complex drum patterns is enticing enough in itself, without even considering the avant-prog magnificence that is writing a many-volumed tome above the polyrhythms. After a short almost unnoticeable break the final three minutes - In the Leprosarium one assumes - is an ambient trip through the inner sanctum of the unholy and unloved. This may be ambient music, but you could not meditate to it!
Mike Judge is a rare artistic talent, and a restless one at that, having for the time being at least, seemingly left his music to gently simmer while he veers off into writing, which you can find HERE. I for one hope he returns to the studio sometime soon!
1. The Confidence-Man (6:14)
2. City of Narrows (6:23)
3. Knives of Winter/Coronation Day (7:22)
4. Whistling Wire (4:38)
5. Knives of Summer (10:19)
6. Rayuela (4:42)
7. With Joy We Espy the Sarcophagus (6:21)
8. Grimoire (3:34)
9. Abrazo y caminando (4:11)
10. Docile Bodies/In The Leprosarium (11:22)
Total running time – 65:08
All music composed, performed and recorded by Michael S. Judge
Jacob Holm-Lupo – Co-writer & additional guitars on Grimoire, keyboards on City of Narrows