This review comes from Salon, May 20, 1997. Gary Kamiya clearly doesn’t like this album. He, unwittingly though, makes it sound like something I definitely want to run out and buy…
There has always been something a little spooky around the edges of John Fahey’s music. The record that made the guitarist a bigger-than-cult figure around 1968 (it’s hard to say just how big he was; in 1968, everything was a cult), Blind Joe Death, seemed to come from an older, darker, more obstinate world than the rainbow-hued one that was blasting out of most of the speakers back then. His solo steel-string guitar — all iron-solid fingerpicking, shifting bass lines under an ominous Delta-blues attack — had a naked deliberateness, an almost Gothic quality.
Fahey’s 10-finger virtuosity helped bring the acoustic steel-string guitar onto center stage as a solo instrument and inspired numerous followers, most notably Leo Kottke. His own career has followed an idiosyncratic path, from versions of songs by Brazilian guitar masters Baden Powell and Bola Sete to traditional folk melodies to adaptations of orchestral themes. He’s even covered Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” In City of Refuge, however, Fahey goes beyond idiosyncratic and into downright weird. And in this case, weird ain’t wonderful.
City of Refuge may not be the most unpleasant album ever recorded, but it comes close. At several points during this interminable, self-indulgent aural experiment, I became convinced that Fahey’s purpose was to recreate the exact sensation of a bad LSD trip or an evil hangover on a metaphysical scale. If that is true, he succeeded admirably: This album should come with a free packet of Thorazine.
There are one or two tracks on City of Refuge where something like guitar playing can be heard, but mostly this “avant-garde” CD offers tonal noodlings that could have been done better by an autistic monkey and assorted “industrial” indulgences. I don’t have anything against outside music: I like Ornette, I dig Cecil Taylor in small doses and I’ve even gotten a few moments of sublimity from a Chicago Art Ensemble concert. But there just ain’t enough payoff for the ordeal of listening to Fahey deliberately hitting frets, muffling notes, turning the tuning pegs as he pointlessly twangs whatever string comes to hand and generally acting like this curved wooden box is something he’s never seen before. Every now and then he stumbles upon a Chopin-y chord that shines for an instant like a beacon against the background of sonic garbage. Then it’s back for a nice stretch-out in the old tuna cans and thrown-away newspapers.
At its best, City of Refuge achieves a nightmarish soundtrack quality, Eraserhead meets Under the Volcano. If you like nightmares, this album is for you. Perhaps the most horrific moment comes in a “tune” cheerily titled “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age,” when what sounds like high-frequency maracas, or a hideous swarm of soulless insects, are shaken into your ears for five, count ‘em five, minutes. Rock on, dude!
It’s all very deconstructive and super-hip, but even Derrida probably can play better than this, and he sucks as a guitarist. I for one prefer to read my philosophy.