"Supergroup" Rangda Carries the Flag for Improvisation

Using either "improv" or "supergroup" to describe a rock band can make many listeners wary, and with good reason. Apply both terms to the same band and you're taking a serious risk of scaring away even the most open-minded potential audience. Despite being such a group, and naming themselves for a Hindu demon queen who enjoys snacking on babies, there's no need to be frightened of Rangda. The trio of underground music heroes Sir Richard Bishop, Ben Chasny, and Chris Corsano has created a thoroughly engaging, and at times surprisingly pretty, album.

The collaboration almost didn't happen. Several years ago, Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance, Comets on Fire) approached Bishop (Sun City Girls), whom he'd long admired, with the idea of forming an improv-based group with two electric guitars and drums. Corsano, who's worked with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Nels Cline, was the natural choice for percussion; his combination of ferocity and precision is unmatched among drummers in the avant-rock and outsider-jazz worlds. Busy schedules and the fact that all three live in different parts of the country kept the idea from becoming a reality until last September, when they played their first show together, without having practiced a single time. The next day they recorded their debut album, False Flag, and a European tour followed in the spring.

"We each had a few skeletal ideas to work with that ended up on the album," the migratory Bishop explains from his temporary home of Portland, Ore. "But then we went on a European tour and developed our sound on stage. We would play two or three extended improvs a night, but even some of those started to have form."

False Flag is divided more or less evenly between melodic sketches that allow for improvisatory exploration and looser, free-form playing. While the languid "Sarcaphogai" and the sweetly lyrical 15-minute album closer "Plain of Jars" are subdued, the sheer physicality of Corsano's performance on the more animated material sounds exhausting, and neither Bishop nor Chasny have recorded anything this intense in years. Though the music is largely improvised, it's not three guys stumbling all over each other, as can be common in other rock-centric improv settings. The two guitarists are familiar with each other's work, and Corsano has played frequently with Chasny (Bishop says Corsano can "do anything he wants and it's great"), resulting in a simpatico band dynamic. Both Bishop and Chasny are well-versed in Indian and Middle Eastern music, adding a twist to more familiar rock forms.

As far as the supergroup designation goes, it's a bit of a joke with some truth to it. Chasny received critical acclaim throughout the last decade for his psychedelic folk project Six Organs of Admittance, and has been a sideman for a wide range of other acts, most recently Current 93. Corsano has played with a mind-boggling number of top-shelf improv and jazz musicians, and even showed up on Bjork's Volta in 2007. Both have numerous recordings and road miles under their belts, but they're babes in the woods compared with Bishop, who spent over 25 years turning on—and freaking out—audiences around the world in the inimitable Sun City Girls before launching a career as a solo artist in 2005. Sun City Girls had its own unique way of doing things for a quarter of a century, before the death of drummer Charles Gocher in 2007 signaled the end of the band. But Bishop says he's surprisingly comfortable with his new bandmates.

"Last year I went on tour with a backing band, and it was strange because I had to be a bandleader," he says. "It turned out great but I'd never had to do that. I had a certain amount of comfort with them on stage, but it's never as easy as with Sun City Girls. But the European tour with Rangda proved we work really well together."

So well, in fact, Bishop says he's already thinking of Rangda as his new band.

"I'm looking at it very seriously," he continues. "I think we could continue for the semi-long run. We're already talking about releasing a live record. And the only unexpected thing about it has been a good thing. Chris is a serious guy, we'll play something and he'll say, ‘No, it's not good enough.' I'm not really used to that. That never happened with Sun City Girls—of course it was always good enough. But that's a good attitude to have, to take things a little more seriously."