Fred Frith's second album for Ralph Recortds gets the reissue treatment. A compelling...
Peter Marsh 2002
Speechless was Fred Frith's second album for the San Franciscan Ralph label, and was originally issued in 1981. Like its predecessor Gravity, it's an eclectic, restless, kaleidoscopic record that pulls in elements of folk music, free improv, avant rock and good old fashioned noise and then knits them together with field recordings, tape manipulation and studio trickery.
The first half of the record (or side one in vinyl terms) features our Fred in cahoots with French trio Etron Fou Leloublan. Their twisted prog suggests an unholy alliance between the Magic Band and King Crimson. Fiendish time signatures are dispatched with a clunky, off-kilter feel; drummer Guigou Chenevier often sounds like he and his kit are repeatedly falling down a flight of stairs. Frith piles up layers of sharp, melodic guitars, woozy mellotrons or mournfully folky violins, with reults that range from the infectiously melodic to the fearsomely dense. To add to the fun, he chucks in tapes sourced from recordings of street fairs, demonstrations, his own kids singing and even a spot of bagpipes.
At this point Frith was resident in New York, and had been nursing a more agressive, pared-down guitar style with the likes of Bill Laswell's Material and the superb power trio Massacre (also featuring Laswell and drummer Fred Maher). Side two is split between recordings sourced from a Massacre gig (mostly overdubbed and fiddled with after the fact), and more reflective, melodic pieces featuring Fred pretty much on his own. Though it's a more diffuse listen than the first half of the record, Frith's intricate weavings of noise and field recordings create an odd semi-narrative that holds it all together (the title track's rhythmic pulse is provided by a malfunctioning water pipe).
While maybe not as approachable a beast as Gravity, Frith's aesthetic on Speechless remains as singular and compelling over 20 years after its original release. Beautifully progressive musicmaking that doesn't take itself too seriously. What more could you ask for?