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Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl
We Are Not The First Dustin Krcatovich , November 17th, 2015 20:29

It's difficult to figure out why listening to We Are Not The First kept leading my mind back to Situationist notions of "the spectacle": the notion that basically all modern life experiences are filtered through mass media and other outside controls which serve to both homogenise and alienate the population. Debord is never name-checked; while it would be easy to cram some of the lyrical passages herein into a Situationist framework, they doesn't necessarily invite as much. I stayed up late re-reading passages from my dog-eared copy of Society Of The Spectacle to try and figure out exactly what I was thinking, but I retired unsatisfied. It wasn't until the next day that the connection crystallised somewhat.

On We Are Not The First, afro-futurist sound sculptor Hieroglyphic Being and the sprawling J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl enter and exit the album's 11 tracks in shifts, only (mostly) coming together for the extended titular closer. Shelly Hirsch drops in on one track to ululate in a style somewhere between Joan La Barbara and a human theremin; recent go-to avant drummer Greg Fox (Liturgy, Zs) comes in to bash his kit in a fashion that is equal parts jazz-exploratory and metal-propulsive. Sun Ra Arkestra lynchpin Marshall Allen hovers as the group's spiritual forefather, sometimes felt more as unifying force than as aural presence.

Allen's main band proves an overt touchstone for We Are Not The First, both spiritually and sonically. As in Sun Ra's music, a great many genre tropes are explored and exploded freely, giving roughly equal time to free spew, wall-melting noise, Last Poets-style pulpiteering, Stankonian space funk, and thumping electronic beats that feel like a double-haywire reworking of one of the better Death Grips tracks. Most like Ra, however, is the way all of these disparate voices come together as a totality. This is not Naked City pastiche nor (gag me with a spoon) Mr. Bungle channel-surfing: the album's disparate influences are unified in a singular mission to transcend the "ghetto of the mind", to collectively move towards a higher human level somewhere well above the trash heap of Late Capitalism.

Which, of course, is where one finds the tie to Debord, whose sociopolitical goals were likely not so different. If this album is any indication, both Hieroglyphic Being and the J.I.T.U. crew are keenly aware of their current place in the spectacle. It wasn't for nothing that Sun Ra talked of a mass black migration to Saturn, and it isn't for nothing that that the band on this record mines the same territory on "Fuck The Ghetto/Think About Outer Space": with little option aside from either willfully participating in the mass-production alienation machine or rebelling against it wholesale (which, aside from being all but impossible, would leave one without basic human resources, since all resources are tied up in the spectacle and its attendant economic system), who wouldn't want to fuck off to the stars?

That said, We Are Not The First is a hopeful record, if not an overly idealistic one. If its clatter and thump sounds distinctly claustrophobic, it's quite possibly because the performers — and indeed, the listeners, whether they know it or not — are cramped by contemporary society and yearning to breathe free. It may be out of reach on this planet, but somehow, somewhere, freedom is still possible. Unfortunately, there's no app, no yoga class, no organic grocer, no politician, no album that will get us any closer to it. Quite the contrary.

This group of musicians doesn't stand a chance of destroying the spectacle and its injustices with a record, and I'm sure they know that. The mass production of a record, really, just makes it another part of the game. Still, I'd rather be listening to this heavy company, pushing at the borders of what could be, than to the countless others who would just as soon be swallowed whole.