A stream of somewhat unfavorable junctures seems to influence this 2015 release which, at least from what I gathered by trawling across the web, has never been scrutinized deeply enough. Truth is, we all were nearly missing a momentous statement.
Here are some facts. For starters, the material comprised by Propaganda was conceived for a namesake theatre piece – dated 1987 – by Matthew Maguire, who in 2016 was accused of excess of sexual boasts and related “annoyances” during the lessons by one of his former students at Fordham University. The bulk of this music had originally appeared on the vinyl version of Frith’s classic The Technology Of Tears, but was left out from the subsequent CD reissues to remain disremembered for decades (not in this house, I should add). The work becomes even more actual nowadays when you consider what has happened on a worldwide political level in recent periods. Chris Cutler, on the RēR Megacorp website, introduces the record with these words: “This was a hard time and the mood is intense, lean and not cheerful”. Isn’t this sentence perfect to epitomize most hypersensitive people’s current subliminal posture?
However, if we stick to the strictly psychoacoustic issues this is a superlative set. Call me biased – your host considers the aforementioned The Technology Of Tears as Frith’s finest hour – but this collection of short anguish-and-sorrow haikus can easily stand on its own legs in spite of being a mandatory complement to that album, now obviously sounding like its progenitor. Together with the composer handling all the instrumental and vocal components we hear numerous animal presences, a plethora of altered visions, and diverse species of noises. Parts of the latter probably derive from the treatments to which Frith’s guitars are usually subjected; other sections remind us that he was using a Synclavier at that time, the “fragmentation factor” prominent and often mind-boggling. Fleeting inserts of syrupy muzak, Kafkian backgrounds and damp desolation weigh equally in the suite’s admirable (un)balance. When the hands are working on the fretboard, there’s no way to misunderstand who is playing that instrument. How the man was able to depict spine-tingling scenes with just a couple of touches (and, sometimes, one or more voices, either in pseudo-ritualistic fake choirs or in last-exhalation agony) is still an unexplained mystery.
While TTOT featured luminaries at their younger best such as John Zorn, Tenko Ueno, Jim Staley and Christian Marclay, Propaganda was realized in solitude and symbolizes, perhaps unwillingly, the same condition in rather graphic manner. It burns the skin and punches the guts. Sometimes it smiles sardonically, eliciting ephemeral illuminations in between glimpses of biting realism.