Cycle-delic sounds.

A few years ago, I posted something on here about Davie Allan And The Arrows, in which I compared and contrasted Davie Allan to Dick Dale, and called him King Of The Motorcycle Guitar. Don't get me wrong, I stand by that completely, but I've recently learned that I didn't know the extent of Davie Allan's awesomeness back when I wrote that post. It's because I took the lazy way out, really--I had downloaded the 40-song double disc anthology of his work, "Devil's Rumble," and then discovered that the anthology would fit on a single burned CD-R if I cut one song from it. That song, "Cycle-delic," was 7 minutes long, over twice the length of anything else on that compilation. I should have known that it was something special based on that alone. But instead, my desire to save CD-R space won out, and I burned "Devil's Rumble" minus "Cycle-delic" to one disc.

Fastforward to sometime in the past 12 months or so. The record store near where I work, having read the writing on the wall where CDs are concerned, has really stepped up their selection of new vinyl, including quite a few awesome garage rock reissues. I discover a brand-new shrinkwrapped reissue of Davie Allan's classic 1968 LP "The Cycle-delic Sounds Of Davie Allan And The Arrows." I can't resist. I spend the $16 they want for it, and I bring it home. There, I finally learn of my much earlier mistake where the song "Cycle-delic" is concerned.

The first song on the album is "Cycle-delic," that song I spurned before due to time constraints. Literally every song on "Cycle-delic Sounds" was eventually collected on "Devil's Rumble," so at this point, "Cycle-delic" itself is the only song on the LP that I don't know intimately. It jumps out at me, the second I put the album on, as a revelation. It's been a good year or so since then, though, and even though I now know it just as intimately as I know the entire rest of the album, it still stands out to me. This 7-minute epic is without a doubt Davie Allan's magnum opus, containing not only the most extreme fuzz solos he ever laid down but also the most dramatic deviation from his typical song construction formula.

First of all, rather than featuring the sorts of verses and choruses that typically alternate on an Arrows track, "Cycle-delic" is based around a simple, repetitive riff that the rhythm section keeps playing throughout most of the song. Its minimal chord changes and unceasing pulse presage Krautrock in some ways, though there's still plenty of the surf-guitar instrumental foundation that connects it back to more typical Arrows work. Within 15 seconds or so, after a few brief repetitions of the song's base riff, Davie Allan launches off into the ether. He's both overdriving his amp to a ridiculous extent and manipulating the hell out of a wah-wah pedal, combining the two sonic manipulations to make his guitar sound like it is both on fire and screaming for its life. This first solo lasts until about 1:30, at which point it is joined by a free jazz saxophone that would sound right at home on John Coltrane's "Ascension" LP. Allan keeps soloing behind it, and when it drops out after 30 seconds or so, he goes into even more extreme guitar destruction, culminating in a passage, at about 2:45, where it sounds like he's yelling into his pickups. If that's what he's doing, he's frantically working his wah-wah pedal at the same time, so whatever vocalizations he's delivering are completely incoherent, but that just makes the whole thing even cooler.

Finally, the rhythm section drops back into a vamp, and while the drummer keeps time with his kick pedal, a harmonica solo begins. Allan just feeds back aimlessly at the beginning of this solo, but after a couple of measures, he and the harmonica player begin exchanging phrases, Robert Plant/Jimmy Page style. Davie tires of this quickly, though, and slamming his wah-wah pedal back down, he takes the song over once again. The rhythm section, presumably led by excellent rhythm guitarist/songwriter Mike Curb (though I'm actually guessing at this, since individual credits are absent from "Cycle-delic Sounds"), follows Davie's lead, and back into the frantic, pounding pulse we go, carried by sheets of guitar noise and crackling tambourines.

This whole thing still isn't over, though, and at about 4:25, the first real change in the main riff occurs, as the Arrows switch into a start-stop chug riff that builds to a crescendo before dropping down into a much quieter repetition of the original riff. Finally, at maybe 5:20 or so, the rhythm section drops out completely, except for the periodic ringing chime of what might be a triangle or a bell of some sort. Davie quit soloing and dropped out of the mix completely at about the point when the band got quiet, but now, as they cut out, he comes back in. There's no real rhyme or reason to what he's doing by now, his sinister, howling sheets of fuzz noise having lost all connection to the rest of the song some time back, and he finally quits playing completely at the same time that the rhythm section drops out. Now all that's left other than that repeated chiming sound is Mike Curb, playing a gorgeous melodic arpeggio all by himself.

This is perhaps the most striking portion of the entire song, representing as it does a complete departure from the normal working methods of Davie Allan And The Arrows. Never before have they left behind their driving, fast-paced rhythms. Never before have they opened a song up as widely as this. The effect is panoramic, as if the camera has just pulled back from a closeup shot of some speeding biker on a mountain road to a much wider angle that shows the entire landscape, and how comparatively tiny the biker is within it. The fact that this sudden departure from the norm works so incredibly well, indeed takes my breath away every time I hear it, is a testament to the talents of Davie Allan and the rest of the Arrows. A few seconds after this dropout, Davie adds a fuzzier harmonizing arpeggio to what his rhythm guitarist is playing, and soon he's brought the rest of the band back in for a quickly building crescendo that caps off the entire amazing song. I never tire of hearing it, and in fact, I've played it through at least a dozen times while writing this entry.

Davie Allan And The Arrows - "Cycle-delic"

That link also contains Davie's most famous single, "Blue's Theme," just so you can hear the difference between "Cycle-delic" and his usual work. Of course, you can also do that at the above video clip, the opening credit sequence of "The Wild Angels," over which "Blue's Theme" plays. The character Peter Fonda plays in "Wild Angels" is named Blue, so it's an appropriate time in the film for that song to play. By the way, any of you who haven't seen "The Wild Angels" should really go hunt it down.

One more thing: Davie Allan is still performing and recording music to this day, which is something I didn't know until googling him while writing this entry. His website is davieallan.com, and he'd love to sell you copies of "Cycle-Delic Sounds" as well as many other releases that he's done over the years. Most CDs are $12.50 postpaid from his website, which is quite reasonable, so hit him up, why don't you? I can assure you that I will, as soon as I can afford to. After all, there's a lot more where this came from.



Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer

In City Of Saints And Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer first introduced readers to Ambergris, the mysterious, otherworldly city of the book's title. Considered by VanderMeer to be a mosaic novel, City Of Saints was just as easily interpreted as a book of short stories, containing as it did a historical pamphlet about Ambergris, a case study of an inmate in a mental institution, a treatise on freshwater squid, excerpts from a book of art criticism, and a story written in a complex code, as well as several somewhat more conventional stories that straddled the boundary between horror and dark fantasy. As the title indicated, though, what all of the shorter works featured had in common was their setting. VanderMeer returned to this setting with Shriek: An Afterword, a fictional biography of Duncan Shriek, the historian whose pamphlet about Ambergris had been included in City Of Saints And Madmen. Duncan's sister, Janice, wrote the original text of the biography, which was interspersed throughout with editorial comments from Duncan himself. And now, after two highly unusual books set in Ambergris, VanderMeer completes the trilogy with Finch, a hardboiled detective novel with a straightforward, linear structure. I'll say this for VanderMeer; he always keeps his readers guessing.

Finch takes place about a century after Shriek: An Afterword, at a time when the mushroom dwellers of Ambergris have taken over the city. The mushroom dwellers, more informally known as grey caps, lived in Ambergris before humans arrived there. They are around four feet tall, with grey skin and large heads that make them look like a cross between humans and mushrooms. The history of Ambergris is fraught with conflict between human settlers and the mushroom dwellers, as detailed in City Of Saints And Madmen. For our purposes it is enough to acknowledge that the relationship between humans and grey caps is a hostile one, and none of the human residents of Ambergris are happy to be living under grey cap rule.

John Finch, our protagonist, is a detective in the police force run by the grey caps, and is therefore caught between two sides, neither of which trust him. At the beginning of the novel, he's assigned to investigate a double murder, in which the victims are a human man and a mushroom dweller. The murder of a grey cap is unheard of, and Finch's superiors take a keen interest in the case. But investigating a murder for the grey caps has some unusual and disturbing elements. Finch must ingest fungal growths called memory bulbs that the grey caps have caused to sprout from the heads of the victims. By eating them, Finch is given temporary access to the memories of the victims, though in an onrushing flood that doesn't really make sense. The experience leaves Finch shaken and confused.

Finch is uncertain how to approach the task he's been given in a manner that will both provide results and keep him out of trouble. The grey caps and their fungally-modified human agents, the Partials, are breathing down his neck at all times. They don't hesitate to threaten both he and his loved ones, sometimes for reasons Finch can't understand. The case he's investigating is equally opaque, and his investigation takes him in random directions that don't seem to have any connecting thread. He deals with events that seem fraught with meaning he can't divine, comes across objects that may be important clues or meaningless junk. At every turn, he runs afoul of some new faction: rebel groups opposing the grey caps, secret agents for rival states with their own territorial agenda, and others whose roles aren't so clearly defined. Underneath it all, there is the sense that powerful forces are being marshaled, though to what end is unclear. His foreboding predicament is reminiscent of 40s noir films, in which protagonists like Robert Mitchum in "Out Of The Past" or Tom Neal in "Detour" seemed unable to do anything to halt their downward spiral. There's a more surreal edge added to Finch, though, by the disturbing environment in which it takes place.

Ambergris had previously been a modern city, with motor vehicles, electricity, and a vibrant night life that revolved around art, theater, and music. The grey caps were always able to exert some control over the hot, tropical environment of Ambergris. They used their bond with fungal organisms to control varieties of spores and mushrooms, generating a constant low-grade attack on the human city. However, it is only now that they've risen from their longtime subterranean redoubt to reclaim the city that was once theirs that the fungi have really taken control. VanderMeer's descriptions of streets and buildings infested with tiny organic life makes me think of some of David Cronenberg's earlier films; the parasites in "Shivers," the bizarre organic modifications of "Rabid" and "The Brood," even the strangely alive-seeming video game systems of "Existenz," create the same sense of creeping unease that VanderMeer has created here. This is a world in which nature itself seems hellbent on the destruction of humanity.

By setting a noir detective story in this cryptobiological dystopia, VanderMeer creates a novel that is both mystery and fantasy of the darkest sort. Indeed, there are several points in Finch that veer into outright Lovecraftian horror. By the latter half of the book, Finch has realized that the case he's been given is much more deeply rooted than he had any way of knowing. Meanwhile, readers will learn details that reinterpret the events of VanderMeer's first two Ambergris novels in surprising ways. Finch begins as a detective story, but becomes much wider in scope, eventually encompassing the entire history of Ambergris. It both embodies and subverts its chosen genre, and is an excellent conclusion to a fascinating and original trilogy.