Aesthethica by Liturgy was one of last year's most divisive records. Purists of heavy music found many reasons to hate on the Brooklyn quartet — mostly its self-identification as "black metal" and singer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's frightened howling — but nobody could justify an ill word against drummer Greg Fox. Throughout Aesthethica, Fox respectfully melded the languages of metal and noise rock with the frightening stamina of drummers like Zach Hill and Chris Corsano.
Even more impressive than Greg Fox's work with Liturgy is how it only represents a sliver of his interests and abilities. He quit Liturgy at the end of 2011 and, without missing a single blast beat, began seriously pursuing Guardian Alien, his improvisational quintet whose proper debut, See the World Given to a One Love Entity, was released by Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records in July.
Functionally, Fox's role in Guardian Alien is much different than his spot in Liturgy or his hired-gun work with Teeth Mountain and Dan Deacon. "This is my first overt band-leading experience, to whatever extent that I'm actually being a bandleader," Fox says. "I'm not writing anybody's parts. It's not like I'm saying, 'This is what we're doing, and this is what the album is going to be called. If you don't like it, I don't care.' Everybody involved has ownership in the band. There's a lot of focus on my involvement because the band is built around the drumming, and it references all the other things I've done. It's the forum where I can lead with my musical intentions.
"When I started doing shows with what kind of became Guardian Alien, I was supposed to play solo, and I invited people to play with me," Fox says. "And then as it developed and started becoming a thing, we solidified as a lineup on the record that's been playing together for a while. And that's going to be on this tour and doing the touring for the foreseeable future."
With the spacy textures normally associated with psychedelic rock swirling around Fox's tornadic drumming, Entity achieves an enormity that would usually require intense premeditation. The earnestness of Guardian Alien's formation and the freeform structure of Entity make the one-track, 31-minute mind-melt come off like spiritual catharsis.
"The record is basically a piece that consists of certain rules and guidelines, but it's not a really overtly composed piece," Fox explains. "The record is in B flat, so one of the biggest rules on the record is to play that note. There are other guidelines about the dynamics and space, but it's like a bunch of feedback loops with people bringing in ideas in the moment. On this tour we'll play the record, and it will be different every night."
The process behind Entity recalls the free-fusion records Miles Davis crafted in his electric phase. At some points the music seems to be in the same family as Davis' On the Corner, partially because of Guardian Alien's heavy use of the shahi baaja, an electrified Indian zitherlike instrument manned by Turner Williams Jr. "The shahi baaja is as essential to our sound as my drumming," Fox says. "Turner and I have been playing together since before I even thought of starting a band and well before this group even had a name. This whole thing started because I saw Turner play and told him I wanted to play music with him."
Before Turner Williams Jr. was a New Yorker, he studied visual art at Washington University. While in St. Louis, he attended shows at DIY venues such as Spooky Action Palace and Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center. He also befriended local free improvisers Dave Stone and Jeremy Kannapell (alias Ghost Ice), but he did not actively perform his music until after his move.
"The whole time I was in St. Louis, I was holed up in my apartment drawing and practicing the shahi baaja," Williams says. "I didn't expect to fall in with a crew in New York like I did, and I feel very fortunate. I think playing music, especially this weird kind of music, people come together because it feels good. It's like, people just find each other."
Guardian Alien also includes vocalist Alex Drewchin Jr. (of psych-pop band Eartheater), bassist Eli Winograd (also of the noise-folk band Two Prong) and Fox's former Liturgy bandmate and Flaming Tusk member guitarist Bernard Gann. The lineup shows Greg Fox's interest in collaboration and the inspiration he finds in the wide variety of musicians in New York.
"I feel like there's something going on," Fox explains. "I'm not sure if it's just me or if it's actually happening or if I'm picking up on something that's been happening and I've just been oblivious to it, but I feel like there's a resurgence of this jazz-musician mentality but in a more wide-ranging fashion. Not applying to one type of music, but more about whatever way musicians approach whatever kind of music they're doing. And it just feels like, to me, based on the conversations I've had with other musicians, that there's a lot of excitement lately.
"For such a long time there was such an emphasis on this blog-rock type of situation where you had to make this record and this song and it has to be something people can easily recognize and categorize," Fox continues. "And then you go on tour, and then you get your big reviews, and then you sell your records, and you make another record. I feel like the emphasis has shifted."
Fox views free improvisation as a gateway to self-actualization. "I really do think of it like we're all samurais," he says. "Somebody wants me to help them realize what they're trying to do, and they want me to come in to add my voice to their thing. I'm happy to do that, and I feel fulfillment doing that, and I get to have people come in and realize my thing. There's so much more room in that kind of situation for amazing things to happen, when the focus is on collaboration and the player and the musician and the instrument and the time you give to the instrument."
While Greg Fox knows that the oddball music Guardian Alien performs is unlikely to break into the wide public eye — he mentions more than once in our conversation that most people do not know any music he makes and never will — he is glad to be a part of the mind-opening process, however subtle his contribution may be. "There are a lot of people who heard Kid A for the first time and thought it was the weirdest thing they'd ever heard," Fox says. "When I saw Arab on Radar for the first time in 2002, I didn't know how to process it. I thought it was awesome, but it kind of scared the shit out of me. Then I saw them again a few summers ago, and it was just awesome. You can't understand a language the first time you hear it. The more you expose yourself to it the more you understand it, and then maybe you can speak it yourself.
"Most people want to hear the same thing over and over again, and that applies to the vast majority of music sales and the vast majority of bands. It's a small niche of folks who want to hear something different and want to hear something that makes them uncomfortable and want to be challenged by their music, and if that seeps into the more popular stuff, I think it's a positive thing."