Once again, time turns back on itself and yields an artifact of great cultural and artistic importance, and once again the agent of chance is John Cale. The intrepid musician and explorer returns from the New York of the 1960s with a three-CD set of music that provides dazzling insight into what was really going on behind the façade of the Velvet Underground (read: "Lou Reed"). The tapes of Cale performing with fellow Velvets Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise, as well as Dream Syndicate compatriot Tony Conrad, are remarkable not just for the music they rescue from obscurity but for the clarification and focus they offer for the music that was to come. Audible in these long-lost experiments and tangents are the avant-forces at work in the Velvet's first two albums, as well as the seeds of NON, the raw materials used to build Glenn Branca's guitar symphonies, the DNA of Sonic Youth, the basis for Suicide, the underpinnings of the Mission of Burma, the vistas of Spacemen 3 and the musical building blocks of countless other bands.
The unwieldy 27-minute excursion "At About This Time Mozart Was Dead and Joseph Conrad Was Sailing the Seven Seas Learning English" could be the codex for everything Cale and company attempted and the Rosetta Stone for every aforementioned band. Adrift with only a viola, a guitar and a Wollensak tape recorder, Cale and Morrison navigate a perilous journey through the rocks and cataracts. Cale's viola thrums ominously in the middle distance of the subconscious while Morrison's guitar is primitively looped through the Wollensak and accelerated to imitate twittering mandolin-crickets. Their clashing, unsynchronized skeins of sound become tangled, then indistinguishable, then obliterated by the whirling knives of the Wollensak's pause button. Strings stretch taut until they scream, scrape across one another in howling figures, then snap and realign into alien, almost familiar wails and hums and growls. How is it that the ideas Cale and his friends played with 30-odd years ago are evident and even rampant in the work of so many people who never heard this music? The answer is just another fragment of the secret history of the twentieth century, and its mystery only enhances Stainless Gamelan's otherworldly beauty.