A listener to The Holy Master does not so much touch his fingers to the basin at the back of the cathedral as immerse his face fully in it, gulping down holy water greedily. And if it burns, so much the better.
The first seconds of Poor School’s release on Ecstatic Peace, the label spearheaded by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, are among the album’s loudest—and that’s saying something for an end-to-end wall-of-sound concoction comprising Nathan Hoyme’s blasting saxophone, double-time drumming by John Niekrasz and the pained squeals of Bryan Ramirez’s guitar.
The Holy Master is a lo-fi recording. Sounds reverberate off the walls and abuse the microphones recording them before being captured on 25-year-old tapes. Horn and guitar predominate as the most melodic elements of this improvisational jam. The drums, if you can believe it, are often the most difficult instrument to pick out from the mix’s rowdier moments.
But the point doesn’t seem to be for one instrument to stand out from the others any more than the point of sprinting is to wink at the race officials. Each member cues off whatever strands of sound emerge from the others. For instance, one-third of the way through the 40-minute album (which features no track listings), nearly toneless single-string picking triggers rococo drum rolls; the closest thing to a transition is when something soothing briefly emerges before being swallowed by maniacal overdrive.
Almost halfway through, some silence surfaces and sound reemerges more moodily. Hoyme plays long, low notes that evoke a bow being dragged across a viola. Ramirez enters to add static, hypno-riffs from the guitar pushing Niekrasz’s drumming from cymbal work to skins. And then the tide recedes again while horn and guitar fade, a rolling recession that exposes the drums again.
Jubilation is the most prominent emotion of The Holy Master, which fairly brands onto the mind’s eye an image of musicians in the round—bowed heads and white-knuckled hands blurry with motion or, otherwise, in repose. There is a fearless exploratory ethos on the album, a willingness to go wherever, like a Grateful Dead “Space” jam turned invasive. At other times, however, it evokes a beatnik trio pumped full of Benzedrine. Eventually, passing time slyly insinuates an awareness of the excursion’s insanity—summed up neatly in the guileless guffaw that is the album’s final sound.
Opportunities to see Poor School perform live are rare these days. Though the trio performed regularly in Missoula in 2005 and 2006, Niekrasz has since moved and was last spotted passing through Missoula on his way east from Portland, Ore., to India. The Holy Master might be the most accessible bit of the band remaining. (Jason Wiener)
The Holy Master is slated for release this month. Visit ecstaticpeace.com.