PHIL MANZANERA, MEET LÚCIO MAIA
THE SAVAGELY INTELLIGENT MEETS THE INTELLIGENTLY SAVAGE
Revisitation Rights 16
…or should that be the intelligently savage Manzanera meets the savagely intelligent Maia?
I don’t rightly know, to tell you the truth, and I may not still be 100% settled on who gets which adjective/noun set once I finish here. These are two favorite guitarists, a pair of players with recording debuts separated by 25 years and several music mini-generations of divergent influences. But their presence always piques my curiosity and interest about any project they’re involved with and I passed out of any semblance of a six-string worship phase ages ago. I’ve always associated them because variations of intelligent and savage in varying proportion always spring to mind as defining words for describing their playing. Manzanera is an old school classic, weaving together melodic strands into often majestic and cohesive statements, experimenting with textures and technology to extend his sonic palette with different colors and extra edge. Maia comes out of hip-hip, dub, rock and Brazilian roots forms, using techniques extremely prone to abuse that he invariably avoids, operating within a percussion-heavy dynamic and using fragments, brief phrases and tonal variations with something akin to a dub mentality to flavor the music in a myriad of ways.
Manzanera obviously is the known quantity here, especially with the deluxe release of the Roxy Music studio album box set at hand for a refresher course. No need then for anything more than noting his solos in the traditional lead guitar role on “Re-Make, Re-Model” and “Editions of You” were impeccably tasteful and fiery, just as the final Eno-ized rampage on “Dream Home Heartache” and bravura sturm and drang opening to “Mother of Pearl” before Ferry settled into his superlative display of phrase turning stretched beyond that. In an era of rampant ego-fueled excess, Manzanera was that rare self-effacing guitarist whose playing was always at the service of the song – witness the elemental and perfect six-note guitar hook to “Street Life” or the shimmering guitar layered guitars of “All I Want Is You”. He was one of three instrumental voices behind Ferry essential to defining the Roxy sound (the others being the obvious Andy MacKay and the underappreciated backbeat drive of Paul Thompson), not to mention the go-to guitar guy for the cycle of Eno/John Cale/801 Live/Quiet Sun/ solo LPs that were beacons of weirdass smart and dirtyass creative rock ‘n’ roll in the pre-punk mid-‘70s.
I still vividly remember Roxy playing the Hollywood Palladium around ‘75 – it was the USO revue theme tour supporting “Siren,” the one that began with Ferry being forced to ignominiously abandon his gaucho shtick – because Manzanera absolutely ruled that night, ripping out blazing riffs and firestorm solo flurries from his Firebird time after time. He was so good I was always pissed off that the Viva live LP from that tour was a single album because Roxy at their peak deserved the double live LP treatment, especially with Manzanera in prime form (and I do wonder why isn’t there an expanded re-issue of Viva in this here era of the Deluxe Special Edition).
His inherent restraint and tastefulness were crucial to the sensibility that marked Avalon, wherein Roxy succeeded in pulling off that rarest of feats by crafting a low-key, low-volume yet rhythmically forceful album that showed that a (gulp) mature/adult rock record that wasn’t bullshit could actually exist. But once Roxy was over, I can’t say I made much effort to follow his career as an artist in the ‘80s. Some of his productions during the ‘90s did pop up on the radar, specifically his projects with Latin American rock bands like Paralamas from Brazil and Aterciopelados out of Colombia. But it really took the re-issue of old ‘70s classics for the CD era and new releases since the turn of the millennium to pique the interest again.
So Manzanera we know but Lúcio Maia is almost certainly an X-factor who needs some introduction. He’s the guitarist of the Brazilian band Nação Zumbi (Zumbi Nation, Zumbi being the last leader of a famed 17th century settlement of runaway African slaves, akin to Maroons in Jamaica), which rose to prominence with their charismatic frontman Chico Science and became standard bearers for a mid-‘90s generational changeover that went largely unnoticed outside Brazil. They hailed from Recife and called their music Mangue Beat – the logo was a satellite dish nestled in the twisted roots of a mangrove tree, a pretty clear statement that this music was rooted in Brazil but wide open to all incoming mid-‘90s global musical influence, from dub and hip-hop to MTV and the baby steps of the Internet model. No mellow MPB business as usual or leftover vestiges of ‘60s Tropicália generation here – Nação Zumbi took three surdo drummers (the big bass drums in Brazilian samba school groups), overlaid a rock verging on thrash metal power trio on their thunderous foundation, topped that with Chico Science’s raps and vocals and filtered the whole thing through a streetwise, dubwise mentality.
Hearing their Da Lama ao Caos debut LP for the first time cold was another vivid memory. Chico briefly riffed on Latin American heroes (“Viva Zapata! Viva Sandino! Viva Zumbi”) over surdo flurries before the song segued, a descending bass line came in, the pace of his rap picked up and then Lúcio Maia lowered the boom with a huge sustained distorted power chord over the top while the drum powersurge roiled and tumbled and drove the music relentlessly underneath. By that point, I was already looking back at my speakers and literally lol-ing at how absurdly good the music was. And then Maia comes flying out of that power chord straight into a trebly right hand rhythm lick that split the distance between Jimmy Nolen/JB funky chicken scratch and Andy Gill’s borderline demented riffing on Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” to shadow Chico Science the rest of the way.
There was absolutely no drop-off on the rest of that album, either. Maia hesitated slightly on the final note of the riff to “A Praeira” and then dropped it in the absolutely perfect place to make it feel like the natural order of the universe would be thrown seriously out of whack if that note hadn’t landed dead on that spot. Maia’s surprisingly spare approach and arsenal of textures – and he had one serious arsenal from the start, ranging through high-aggro thrash metal phrases, mondo distorted chords, sustained notes, controlled feedback, heavy reverb, JB R&B scratch, some Jimi wah-wahing – was crucial in giving melodic shading and color to the band’s percussive attack. He controlled and mixed his techniques to fit the song, flying over the top of the surging rhythms or dropping back inside them it to more subliminally comment behind Chico Science.
The circular construction of “Coco Dub (Afrociberdelia)” was pure dub sound science, layering the guitars over the rhythm flow, the feeling that the flow could go on endlessly mutating itself, a sensation that full understanding of dub principles and sound sculpting was at play here (no surprise, then, that Chico Science & Nação Zumbi sounds like the Brazil branch of On-U Sound on “Dubismo” from the posthumous 1997 CSNZ). The follow-up Afrociberdelia sounded less accomplished and meandering, more rough sketches than fully fleshed out pieces, but also suggested their style was primarily based on the hip-hop approach of piecing together fragments and segments to achieve flow.
Those two albums left Chico Science & Nação Zumbi standing on the verge of displacing the ‘60s old school Brazil vanguard – Da Lama ao Caos created enough stir for both LPs to be distributed by Sony U.S. Latin, not your everyday occurrence, and European festival performances – but then Chico Science got killed in a car crash in 1997. That 2CD CSNZ compilation of odds & sods and remixes (by an impressive international array of contributors) was the final addition to his recorded legacy and Maia apparently went off and joined the first edition of ex-Sepultura singer Max Calavera’s Soulfly under the name Jackson Bandeira. But he was back when the retooled Nação Zumbi released Radio S.Amb.A in 2000 and for the four subsequent studio albums that largely went unheard and undistributed outside of Brazil, the usual fate for new Brazilian music unassociated with those ‘60s names and sounds (Why is that, anyway?)
Fome de Tudo from 2007 is the latest Nação Zumbi release I know of but probably Lúcio’s Maia’s most visible recent project is playing guitar in Almaz behind Seu Jorge, who you may know as that Bowie-singing black boatman in whatever that Bill Murray as Jacques Cousteau movie was called. Almaz was an accidental band that came out of informal jams on favorite Brazilian songs and a few very offbeat covers sung in English but it shows how Maia has continued stripping down his sound to the point where, even in this minimal quartet setting where his guitar is the melody instrument, he doesn’t do much more than sketch out the chord structure or melody line. On the opening “Errare Humanum Est”, his focus is on strums and washes of sound supporting Jorge’s deep, mellifluous voice, which sounds more than a bit like Gil Scott-Heron (and actually a whole lot like him on Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”).
The nature of the material may account for the unexpected jazzy and MPB stylings Maia employs but, surprisingly, what he relies on most is a crystalline reverb tone (why am I reminded of Chris Isaak-style rockabilly?) that comes through strongly on Kraftwerk’s “The Model”. “Rock With You” is another skeletal outline where that reverb and Maia’s touch his touch carry the day while “Pai Joao” is the first time he starts breaking out and exploring his sonics arsenal. But the only time he really cuts loose and amps out on the entire album is “Girl You Move Me”, a song culled from the one album by an early ‘70s black funk-rock band from Paris named Cane and Able (and I wonder how in hell did they come across that one?).
But Almaz just extended the streamlined sound already evident on Fome de Tudo, one more reliant on textures through echo and reverb and less on the roar of distortion and the early wah-wah. It actually reflects the direction Maia has steadily been moving in since Radio S.amb.A., but he still occasionally drops one of those heavy chord bombs and there’s nothing quite so delicious as the anticipation building when you can feel it coming – like 90 seconds into the opening “Bossa Nossa” on Fome de Tudo where it triggers a maelstrom riddled with reverb flashes in the siren-laden night. “Inferno” builds incrementally in intensity, volume, and guitar power until culminating in the explosion of a full-on blitz solo finale…but even that lasts only 30 seconds. The appealing, horn-flavored “Nasceduoro” offers lighter relief, berimbau leads into the potent stomp of “Onde Tenho Que Ir” and “Será Castigada a Culpa” boasts a memorable melody heavy on sonic textures. So does “No Olimpo”, and then that melody on simple chords and tone colors goes off into a section that brings to mind Quiet Sun – much like the live “Salustiano Song” from CSNZ (more than the snippet on Da Lama), you could very easily imagine this music as part of a Manzanera record.
It was talk of Quiet Sun that rekindled my interest in Manzanera over the past few years, with the revamped and expanded re-issues of early solo career highlights like Mainstream and 801 Live released on his Expression label. Mainstream always rated as a favorite album for the blend of strong material and inspired playing, a prime example of how the savage side of Manzanera gave an extra jolt of much-needed intensity to a form that far too often created little more than skilled noodling. It also featured “Mummy was an Asteroid, Daddy was a Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil”, doubly memorable for its superbly crafted melody and arrangement culminating in a breakneck unison rifferama finale as well as ranking number three on my personal favorite song/album title of all time list. The news of an LP of fresh material by a band including Quiet Sun drummer Charles Hayward for an album celebrating his Firebird guitar that Manzanera himself likened to an extension of that group tipped the scales towards checking it out.
Firebird VII starts out very strongly in the “Asteroid” vein with the riff-heavy savagery of “Fortunately I had One with Me” (written by Quiet Sun bass alumnus Bill MacCormick) and sustains very promisingly through “FIREeBIReD.” But the music just seems to dissipate once it reached “Mexican Hat” and the rest of album faded into insignificance with next to no impact. The problem seemed to be keyboard player Leszek Mozdzer, who has a jazz and classical background but lacks the ability or inclination to engage Manzanera as an improv partner cum equal foil with the intensity Dave Jarrett did in Quiet Sun. Mozdzer is simply too tasteful and restrained, plenty intelligent but would appear to be lacking a bit in the old savagery department.
The Music, 1972-2008 compilation features one disc of early career highlights, the Roxy selections centered on the songs Manzanera had a hand in writing, more or less predictable although the shift in context does turn the extended coda melody on “Prairie Rose” into something more forceful and memorable than when it closed Country Life. The second CD exclusively focuses on the materials from the post-Roxy reunion trilogy of albums during the 2000s (the accompanying DVD takes care of key performances from the ‘80s and ‘90s) where Manzanera rejoined forces in the studio with Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson and, once in the occasional while, Brian Eno. He also discovered his singing voice and, while that may be no great shakes, it’s certainly serviceable and the featured songs suggest that the CDs may be worth at least a cursory listen. And something more than that when it comes to 50 Minutes Later, because “Enotonik Bible Black” with Brian Eno ventures into intriguing realms of sonic texture experiments while the riff to “Technicolor UFO” simply nails a triumphant ringing chord that hits the early ‘70s glory days spot dead on.
But it also leaves us hanging without anywhere else to go or much of a conclusion with regard to Messrs. Manzanera, Maia and the burning question of the intelligently savage vs. the savagely intelligent. It’s an artificial distinction, of course, a vehicle to use as an excuse for writing about two favorite musicians, their youthful primes separated by 25 years, who shared certain traits in their approach to playing guitar that triggered very similar and very powerful emotional reactions. They’re certainly not the only guitarists whose playing could be described with variations on those words and concepts.
But for the record, and to make a final getaway from this self-created cul de sac, I would lean more towards savagely intelligent to describe Manzanera, since intelligence could be considered as the defining characteristic of his playing – the savagery enters the picture from awareness of his innately melodic musical sense and the need to rough things up some around the edges to give the intrinsically tasteful music the requisite bite it needs. So that would leave Maia as the intelligently savage, because the main building blocks of his style are more consistently raucous and rowdy, and the hallmark of his approach lies in recognizing the need to keep a tight rein on musical elements that walk the tightrope of potential excess and having the savvy to pull that off without sacrificing the power that the take-no-prisoners music demands.
But then again, when I reviewed Da Lama ao Caos for Allmusic years ago, I described him as the savagely intelligent Lúcio Maia.
So there you go.