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Three Progressive Releases: Motor Totemist Guild, Thinking Plague, and Djam Karet

By Brian L. Knight


Thinking Plague –“Early Plague Years” (Cuneiform Records, 1984,1986,2000)

Do not think of the feel good Rocky Mountain vibes of Big Head Todd, Floodplain Gang or String Cheese Incident when you think of Colorado’s Thinking Plague.  This band arose during the 1980s from basement jam sessions between guitarist/composer Mike Johnson and bassist/drummer Bob Drake who shared a common love of the symphonic progressivism of Yes, the avant-garde progressive rock/jazz of Henry Cow and the jazz –fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as well as the classical compositions of Bartok, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. 

           Truly defining the word “eclectic, Thinking Plague touches on progressive, folk, punk, world music and jazz.  This music is often labeled as Rock in Opposition – a movement started in the 1960s by Henry Cow.  It is the avant-garde/free jazz of the rock and roll world.  Just as Albert Ayler and Art Ensemble of Chicago abandoned traditional jazz characteristics, Thinking Plague has abandoned stereotypical rock and roll characteristics such as chorus, break beat and overall structure.  The one characteristic that is retained is the breakdown, but with Thinking Plague, they are in a perpetual stage of breakdown.

In the magazine, Bob Drake explained the reasoning behind the band’s moniker: “So anyway, Thinking Plague means the disease of thinking in a society where too much thinking is considered as grounds for shunning, suspicion of mental instability, dismissal as out of touch with the "real" world.  The disease of the dreamer be she/he a scientist or a poet."


The album Early Plague Years is a collection of the band’s first two albums Moonsongs (1986) and …A Thinking Plague (1984).  Bob Drake re-mastered and repackaged the two original LPs into one fine CD package.  There were only 500 hand painted copies of the original 1984 album as well as some subsequent cassette releases.  The album ranges from the hard rocking, sonically pungent, politically motivated “Warheads” and then moves into the ethereal, percussive, chant laden tracks of “Etude for Combo’’, Collarless Fog”,  “Inside Out” and the epic “Moonsongs”. 

This album is for those who are looking for a fresh look at what can be created within the open world of rock and roll.  What you will find won’t be melodic and finger snapping but it will insightful and talented.


Djam Karet/ Reflections of a Firepool (Cuneiform Records, 1989, 2000)

This Los Angeles band that has been hard at creating dark, heavy improvised progressive rock for the last sixteen years.  The band started as a live jam band (while many of today “jam banders” were listening to the Hooters) and the band slowly developed into a studio oriented progressive band.  The name comes from a Harlan Ellison novel, and it is Balinese phrase that means "elastic time-the hour that stretches.”  This could be a direct reference to the band’s earliest gigs, which were one non-stop improvisational jam sessions.  During these sessions and through their subsequent albums, Djam Karet combined heavy guitar rock with Eastern drone music. 

           Reflections of a Firepool is a re-releases of the band’s 1989 debut studio effort.  Djam Karet had been an active live jamming band since its 1984 inception and it took them until Reflections to actually enter the studio.  The band is lead by the dual soaring guitars of Gayle Ellett and Mike Henderson while drummer Chuck Oken Jr. and bassist Henry J. Osborne propel the band into multiple moods and polyrhythms.  “The Sky Opens Twice” is an all out dueling guitar onslaught guitar driven rock reminiscent of King Crimson while “Fall of the Monkeywalk” is a percussion jam that reflects the band’s fascination with the music of the Middle East.  Two of the finest tracks are “Reflections From The Firepool” and “Run Cerberus Run” which display the epic compositional skills of the band.  For anyone who appreciates the gradual jams of Phish songs such as “Harry Hood” or Pink Floyd songs such as “Echoes”, than you will find many of the tunes (such as “The Sky Opens Twice”) on Reflections of a Firepool equally thought provoking.

On the surface, the four members of Djam Karet may look like your run of the mill two guitars, drum and bass outfit, but after listening to Reflections of a Firepool, one will find a collection of sounds and instruments that are truly impressive. 


Motor Totemist Guild -All American City(Independent records, 1999). 

This album consists of the music from the soundtrack to the movie, YU GAKUSEI.  The music was composed by James Grigsby, who also controls the samplers and computers.  The rest of  Motor Totemist Guild consists of Bridget Convey (piano), Rod Poole (acoustic guitar), Hannes Giger (contrabass) and  David Kerman (drums).  The band is also joined by  The Unwitting Accomplices -Lynn Johnston (saxophones), Tom Watson (feedback), Belinda Cheng ( air & water), Sanjay Kumar (sardar), Kaori Grigsby (voice), and Luigi Futi (sketchbook).  All American City consists of 23 songs that range from the opening “The Blue Lantern” which clocks in at a quick 18 seconds and the epic foray into Cageian noise, the 27+ minute “Yamatonadeshiko.”  The music touches on little of everything: Stockhausen, The Residents, Albert Ayler, Daniel Denis, Univers Zero, Alloy Orchestra, and  Henry Cow.  The music takes unpredictable directions, sometimes touching on the music of chamber music ensembles, creating dark and haunting atmospheres.