The Un City Girls & All Who Sail With Them

Unrock began life as a record store, founded by Michael Stahl in Krefeld Germany. It became a “real” label two decades later, in 2012, when Stahl decided to commodify his appreciation of the Sun City Girls and all they had wrought. Previously, Krefeld was a town I'd known only as the site at which one of the best This Heat bootlegs was recorded (This Heat Live, a cassette issued as in a cool little folder back in '88). But Unrock (the store) was starting to put on smallish gigs at their own location, and also sponsoring larger shows elsewhere. I first became aware of this when they began issuing CDRs of live shows (the Unrock In-Store Gig Series) with artists like Jack Rose, Samara Lubelski, MVEE, etc. This protean label was called Unsound. But after taking the plunge in 2012 and doing a full LP with Rick Bishop, Stahl really got into releasing records, and Unrock has done so on a regular basis ever since.

In the process, Unrock has managed to create a truly impressive set of LPs. Much of the music is guitar based, often with a relationship to one of the Bishop Brothers, or to a musician or band with whom the Brothers have worked. Not entirely, but it's safe to say that the Sun City Girls' music has provided an aesthetic grid inside which Unrock (the label) operates.

Unrock just celebrated the store's 25th anniversary with a concert by the Clandestine Trio — which is Alan and Rick Bishop with Chris Corsano. While no one can replace the evil genius that was Charles Gocher, Corsano certainly has the chops to keep his stool warm until the Bishop Brothers meet him in Hell.

Anyway, this seemed like a very good moment to give a thorough listen to the Unrock catalog. So I did.

First Unrock LP was this collection of Sir Richard Bishop's superb solo squab, in both acoustic and electric formats. A bunch of the tracks are reportedly lifted from tour CDRs, which is a nice service since few ever heard 'em in their original format. “Shiawassee Flats” is from All String Out. “Empty Quarter,” “Navaratri” and “Strum and a Gallop” are from Automatic Writing. “Almeria” is from Head Trauma. “Matadora,” “William Goat's Gruff” and “Boxcar Serenade” were recorded just for this one. Rick's acoustic playing here is quite lovely, full of the Eastern filigree and open strums, it's a beautiful instrumental set, with no false notes, and more hints of Basho than expected. Originally issued on clear vinyl, it was reissued on white.

When Charlie Gocher died in 2007, it was a real blow to everyone who knew anything about good music. Naturally, the Bishop brothers, who comprised the other two-thirds of the Sun City Girls were hardest hit. In 2008 they opted to do a tour as Brothers Unconnected, playing material largely written by and in tribute to the dark hurricane that was Charlie. The show we caught at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh was killer. They did some other shows in the same format (although with a slightly broader choice of songs) in 2011, and this 2LP set captures them in Krefeld Germany. Playing mostly (entirely?) tunes from the Sun City Girls catalog, focusing on the insanely cruel lyrics of Gocher, it's a really funny live show. Lots of rambling commentary and fraternal love, all shot through with an undercurrent of loss. An exceptional duo performance, with certain passages that make one hear new parallels to certain tunes from the Fugs' Songbook.

Second LP by a Turkish instrumental quartet who play loud, psych-based rock. Their first album, Guarana Superpower, was on Sublime Frequencies and compiled tracks from early CDRs. This one has recordings done in Turkey, and also from European tours in 2011 and 2012. Their sound gets compared to the Sun City Girls sometimes, but their approach is fatter, harder and straighter. There are even echoes of surf-style riffing that remind us that Dick Dale's seminal approach owed a lot to his own Armenian musical roots. These guys take their cues from a variety of musical traditions, and are less overtly Turkish sounding than some of the other bands on the Istanbul scene. I keep thinking of some hard psych/surf amalgam without Davie Allen's fuzz, or referencing any actual surf rock riffs. It's the tone, not the melodies.

Split LP recoded at various locations in the Unrock universe, while these two stolid Americans were touring Europe. The Bishop side has a long electric exploration of “Zurvan” (first heard on While My Guitar Violently Bleeds). Lots of Flamencan detailing and jazzoid surface shifts make for a really nice long format improv. The Orcutt side is a wonderful example of his live solo playing ca. 2013 or so. The pieces are short, jagged and complex in terms of both melody and rhythm, displaying rare mastery of the 4-string guitar, as bluesy as it is experimental. This is the first LP to have a bonus mail-order single, presumably recorded at the same sessions. Bishop plays a great electric solo version of “Opium Den” (from the SCG's Libyan Dream set). Orcutt does a long original called “Damenwartesaal,” which has a deliciously expansive melodic template.

Split LP of studio recordings by the peripatetic Sir Bishop, and Brooklyn-based guitar shredder, Ava Mendoza, who I first saw as part of a live recreation of Fred Frith’s album Gravity. Bishop starts off with a lame ass pop tune, worthy of some unreleased electric session by Davey “Fucking” Graham. Hideously intentioned, but carried off with aplomb. Much of the rest of his side is devoted to fast jazzy barre chord pieces. Sounds something like Tal Farlow with his mohawk ablaze. Definitely some “mature” work from Bish. Ava's solo side is much more destructo oriented. There's whacked pedal work, vocals of both an abstract and specific nature, and lots of hard edged guitar. The mood ranges from bluesy stroll to jazzoid hunch to pure out. Entitled “This Road of No Returning,” one guesses it's a suite of very peculiar design. Mendoza definitely has her own thing going on and it is hip as shit. The mail-order single for this one has Bish doing “Saraqusta,” which comes off like epic bullfighter tunage you'd hear as the soundtrack to an old Warner Bros. cartoon. Mendoza blasts out a nicely angular version of “Feral Twin,” which she originally did on her Unnatural Ways LP. Kickin'.

A Trio is a Beirut based free-jazz improv unit who've released a couple of CDs, as well as the great Live in Nickelsdorf LP on Roaratorio. Why such truly talented players would choose to hook with an obvious hack like Alan Bishop is anyone's guess, but they did it. And these studio sessions were recorded around the same time as the Nickelsdorf show in 2012. Originally released as a CD in Lebanon, this LP reissues all five tracks and represents a very damn interesting fusion of Bishop's brand of weirdness with the trio's own. Their playing here tends towards the atmospheric rather than the more overt charge one usually hears from their trumpet/bass/guitar line-up. Likewise, Bish keeps his guitar playing reigned in and focuses more explosive energy on his vocals (which, nevertheless, manage to sound “appropriate.”) The mail-order single is a one sided Bishop piece, with a tune called “Roughly Jenny,” which seems like it's an invented answer song to “Gently Johnny,” (a popular American trad ballad Alan's been playing for many years) done in lushly strange Middle Eastern form.

Sam Shalabi is a Montreal based string-bender of great merit. And like Alan Bishop, he divides his time between North America and Egypt, so it's no surprise they're collusionists. On this split album, there's one side of Sam & Alan recorded as a duo in Cairo. On the flip is Sam playing solo in Montreal. The duo side is neat, since Bish leaves the string attack to Sam's electric guitar, while he focuses on breathing through his mouth and also through an alto saxophone. It is a noisy ass hive of sound when they connect, scrambled electric string-clutter mixed with alto blurts of a squabbly and intermittent nature. It lacks some of the flow that made Noah Howard's meeting with Jaap Van Schoonhoven (on Patterns) so memorable, but it still stings your ears like a bee. For his solo side, Sam plays oud. He begins in fairly traditional turf, then spins further and further towards the edge of the unknown tongue. Then he hauls it all back in and lets it out again several times, leaving us slack with wonder. The mail-order single was recorded at Unrock's 20th anniversary show. Shalabi does an uncharacteristic synth/guitar mash-up of very modernist design, almost sounding like late-period Göttsching. Alvarius counters with a song so contemptuous of community standards you'll swear he's channeling the late great Gocher.

Eyvind Kang is a brilliant string-winder from the Pacific Northwest, who often collaborated with the Sun City Girls (among many other “clients”) playing mostly violin or bass guitar. Mysterious and slippery, his side here features mostly plucked cello. There are two solo spots (including an Ayler cover he entitles “The Wizard”), and another two done as trio with Indonesian cellist, Krusnedi Sukarwanto, and Ghanian drummer, Yah Amponsah. Very amazing stuff, and wildly difficult to place inside any known tradition. All of it was done in the studio. The solo session in 2016 (presumably in L.A.), the trio set in Germany during 2012. Tashi Dorji is an incredible guitar player, originally from Bhutan, but long based in Asheville, NC. He got a lot of early support from Ben Chasny, but has really come into his own over the last couple of years, playing both solo and in duos with various drummers. His two pieces on the LP are solo acoustic inventions with a lot of the percussive chances he sometimes like to take with strings. The sound is fully haunted. On the mail-order single, Kang plays a busily creaky (mostly arco) solo. Dorji's contribution mixes un-amped pluckery with amped knob-twisting with delirium-inducing results.

Karkhana are a multi-national improvising septet (sometimes octet, I think) with dudes mostly from Istanbul, Beirut and Cairo, although Chicago drummer Michael Zerang is part of the team as well. Considering that members are drawn from outfits like Konstrukt and A Trio, there should be no surprise that the vibe here is jazzic. Have not heard their other two LPs (one on Holidays, one of Sagittarius-a-Star), but this one displays a couple of different approaches. On the first side, the sound is boiling electric spuzz with a post-Prime Time feel. Lots of intense parallel play, then some exploration of cosmic plains. The flip has two pieces, one a very wobbly group improv, the other a showcase for Sam Shalabi's oud playing inside of group dynamics. Very boss. The single is a one-sided monster, on which the band explores noisy, proggy caverns of ECM's freak register. Outstanding.

Dwarfs are a trio made up of Alan Bishop, Sam Shalabi and Egyptian keyboard player, Maurice Louca (also in Karkhana). Their first release was a sprawling double LP, and now they have followed it up with a similarly sprawling single album. Recorded live in Beirut in April 2017. Bishop does some of his best Al-Jolson-trapped-in-a-shoe vocalizing, and the three perform extremely tight-wound loop-de-loops through each others' notes. Sam plays some great insect guitar, leaving Alan room to toodle with mouth and lungs. And Maurice (presumably) provides lots of strange textural motifs that plug holes, massage scalps and raise welts. Hard to grok the density conjured with just six hands.

Besides these albums, Unrock has issued a series of EPs, expanding the known parameters of the musicians they love.

Rangda, of course, is the power trio made up of Richard Bishop, Ben Chansy and Chris Corsano. This EP was recorded on two different Euro tours (2010 & 2012). They play “Silver Nile” and “Night Porter” (from Formerly Extinct) and “Serrated Edges” (from False Flag), and the whole shebang shudders with the manic slow-hand explosion these guys always lower over your head. I can never escape from the idea that somehow this band is based on a concept derived from the Mahavishnu/Devadip LP Love Devotion Surrender (which also graced the front cover of Bill Orcutt's A New Way to Pay Old Debts), but no one will ever back me up on theory. Bastards! Regardless, the pace at which the guitars unfold always puts me in mind of pre-speed McLaughlin (ca. Tony Williams Lifetime or Devotion) and Corsano's drumming is remarkably straight ahead and driving in the context. Gotta love this stuff.

SRB's Road to Siam is built around the sidelong improvisation, “Mekong,” which was recorded at a studio in Thailand in 2014. Played on an acoustic guitar, in the style of a Laotian three-stringed instrument called a phin, the music is a ramble for your brain. Flowing along a fully navigable melodic course, the piece is a deep trip with lots more overt beauty-motion than Rick generally evokes. The flip has three tracks in the same mood, which were supposed to have been previously released on digital download “albums” (as if such a thing actually exists!) All kilter, no filter.

This EP reissues the seven songs originally released under this title as a cassette on Dylan Nyoukis's notoriously sketchy Chocolate Monk label. As is so often the case with Chocolate Monk's releases, the material is more whacked out than usual. There are no credits anywhere (natch), but the sounds appear to be derived from scraped fiddle, babbling lips and an acoustic guitar. There's also a nice little piece of looped taped, and all the aggression you'd expect. A nice mixed program with as much sin as any we've heard. Pleased it was saved from obscurity. The mail-order single is not from the cassette, but features two lo-fi live recordings (probably from somewhere in Java) of very cracked Morricone covers, scored for acoustic guitar, plus professional hums and/or doots. Eerily charming.

Issued in celebration of Unrock's Golden Quartet Century, this has two tracks each by the Brothers Bishop. The first SRB instrumental appears to contain guitar, musette and drum, but whether he plays them or what is unknown. The material sounds like Third Ear Band crossed with Lola V Stain, which is a good thing indeed. And the more I listen, the more I wonder if they collaborate on the music, but switch who's doing leads or something. Might make sense. Or not. Either way it's a beaut. Alvarius has one psych-pop readymade, sung in his best “safe-for-company” voice. His other offering is a spoken piece that sounds like Uncle Jim stuck in a Kentucky cabin surrounded by roosters. Sir Rick finishes things off with a lovely organ/electric guitar duet that whips through your head like hot wind from the Gobi. Fucking spectacular.

Shoppers, start your engines.