Buckethead ( Brian Carroll )/ guitar, Brain ( Brian Mantia ) / drums, Bill Laswell / bass, DXT / turntables, DJ Q-Bert ( Richard Quitevis ) / turntables, Mix Master Mike ( Michael Schwartz ) / turntables, Shortkut ( Jonathan Cruz )/ turntables, DJ Disk / turntables
Praxis are basically the house band of Laswell’s Axiom label and, however else they might sound, they always sound as if fun is being had. Rooted in funk and rock, but too outré to court mainstream interest, they combine a cut-and-paste aesthetic with strong grooves. If this sounds like a delicious fusion — and, yes, the word “fusion” was bound to come up sooner or later — it can be a case of falling between stools as well.
Transmutation Live comes with a mini-essay following the now de rigeur sub-Baudrillard postmodernism which is supposed to lend a radical chic to experimental music but actually just reads like self-serving smartness. As usual, the tub-thumping cybermanifesto swiftly breaks down into a catalogue of Victorian values: witness “without reckless experimentation… we are an empty cipher as a species, devoid of emotion dignity and desire and — most significantly — hope.” Real post-humanists would dearly love to be able to reduce the human condition to that of empty cipher, and they have found out just how hard that is to accomplish. A comfort it is, then, that one Bill Murphy is responsible for the sleeve notes, not the musicians themselves.
The night’s performance is broken down into four quater-hour pieces, each very much like the others. In each case, a grinding rock riff leads into guitar solos and set pieces by the featured DJs. Each of these latter is different, but all of them are funky, athletic and exciting, using old skool cutting techniques and producing an oddly retro sound. Drummer Brain makes an unintrusive and flexable contribution while, in the absence of Praxis regular Bootsy Collins, Laswell holds down the bottom end with uncharacteristic modesty. Regular DJ DXT adds her/his own comments to the guest spots, perhaps plays a couple of solos (they are not individually credited) and otherwise seems to keep pretty quiet.
Buckethead will be the sticking-point for most listeners. He sounds like an actor playing the part of a heavy metal guitarist, standing there on stage shredding his fretboard as if flanked by enormous quotation marks. His technique, within the narrow remit of 1980s rock guitar, is unquestionable, and he rattles off arpeggios and altered scales as if recording an instructional video, but it’s the very obsolete nature of this kind of playing that makes Buckethead’s style so odd. He is, of course, a stickler for historical detail, from his pristinely processed sound (all digital distortion, a pinch of delay and a cathedralful of reverb) to the way he structures his solos. The final track even boasts a cheezy rock ballad section, Buckethead rolling back the distortion and playing vibrato-heavy white boy blues reminiscent of Gary Moore trying to be sensitive.
A miracle then that, like all good comic performers, he occasionally transcends his role and produces something more profound. As well as sweep picking and two-handed antics, Buckethead is capable of turning to more abstract methods — sounding like Sonny Sharrock borrowing Joe Satriani’s rig — or using standard techniques but non-standard note choices to interesting effect, and these more experimental ventures are both more plentiful and better-integrated here than on previous releases. Indeed, his approach could be seen as a valid if bloody-minded attempt to reinvigorate a sound which most of Laswell’s fans and their friends would tend to treat like a bad smell.
What is unsatisfying about this record, then, is the fact that none of these individually intruiging propositions really gels with any of the others. You get all the ingredients, but one at a time instead of beaten and baked for an hour. So perhaps fusion is quite the wrong word here. And the thing about collage is that the whole has to be more than the sum of the parts, the parts communicating across their (intact) boundaries. This just isn’t happening on this record, not even to the extent that it has sometimes happened for Praxis elsewhere. Buckethead and the guest DJs, in particular, seem to have nothing whatsoever to say to one another, and might as well be playing in different venues. Richard Cochrane