The experts, or so they call themselves, seem to agree that the best way to learn a foreign language is to be immersed within it. You’ll never pick up on what the “Baños” is quicker than when that’s the only thing everyone’s calling it, and if you’re like me (with the bladder of a five-year-old girl after a gallon of Kool Aid) you’ll catch on pretty quickly. To say that the best way to appreciate Ron Anderson’s PAK is to jump in, full-immersion style, is to actually say it’s the only way.
The latest album, Secret Curve, is on John Zorn’s ambitious and perplexing Tzadik label, and Anderson’s PAK fits both descriptors, but it is hard to precisely zero in on what the album offers the uninitiated. It is, at heart, free jazz but not necessarily Ornette Coleman. It is prog-rock and flirts with King Crimson and Frank Zappa, but they don’t peacefully coexist either. There is really no guitar distortion to be found, yet there are moments when the music gets so intense and frenetic, it’ll scare you.
And that is exactly what I needed the moment the disc arrived at my door. Anderson’s bass and Keith Abrams’ drums are the unifying connection in each track, and that is crucial because the opening “Overture” requires it. This is a shock-and-awe of a whole different sort as the group barrels through time signatures, blasts of soloing, and basically throws the template of the disc at you in just over one minute. The following “Let Me Tell You Something” is more cohesive, but just by comparison. “Caffeine Static Rendezvous” more than flirts with math-rock’s insistences.
Later on, the mostly sedate and pretty “Mama’s Little Anarchist” lulls you into complacency, shattered by the subsequent “E4 Or D4?,” composed with Jerome Noetinger, electronics and tape manipulator. The transition is shocking because “Anarchist’s” standard compositional style runs headlong into what sounds like an Anderson performance, recorded onto a CD, then played on fast-forward, then re-recorded. After two minutes, things start to decompress.
The closing track, “Kempelen’s Automaton,” does what, by this time, seems unthinkable, and that is to get funky (and what the hell? Was that a French horn?!) Anderson is a very talented bassist, and on this track, he gets to show it off without blowing your head up.
By the time I finished the disc, I enjoyed, appreciated, and in some way understood it, or at least the thought-process behind it. If, at any point in the disc, I skipped around to different tracks I found myself lost. No question in my mind that, every now and then, Anderson is totally screwing with the listener, but even that was welcomed in context. Out of context, and I was just getting antsy trying to figure out why people were pointing me to the “Baños” when I was looking for the toilets. It’s all about immersion.
I mentioned King Crimson and Frank Zappa, not to play that terrible old game critics often do where I insinuate that if you like these guys, you’ll like that guy, but to at least point you in a viable direction. Ron Anderson’s PAK sounds like nothing you’ve heard lately. Secret Curve is adventurous, perplexing, challenging, occasionally atonal and terrifying, but in the end I caught up with its foreign language and appreciated it. If you are aching to be confronted by something more than verse/chorus/verse from a synth array, this may be exactly what you were looking for.
Secret Curve is available from Amazon.com.