Graded on a Curve:
Craig Leon,
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon

You may not know him by name, but as a producer on the crucial first-wave NYC punk albums Ramones, Blondie, & Suicide, Craig Leon’s impact on modern music has been incalculable. But hey, that’s old news; the new scoop is that his Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon is fresh out through the RVNG Intl. label, and it’s a terrific follow-up to the initial installment, which compiled, to Leon’s long-delayed satisfaction, his groundbreaking and underheard electronic proto-New Age records Nommos and Visiting, originally released in 1981 and ’83 respectively. ‘Twas one of 2014’s stronger reissues, but even more impressive is how this fresh volume unfurls with hardly a letdown.

I’m not generally in the habit of giving producers too much credit, particularly as a substantial chunk of music history is devoted to how creators have struggled and suffered at the hands of these often cocaine-addled corporate liaisons and supposed experts, but Craig Leon’s oversight connection with three defining, wildly different, and enduringly worthwhile punk documents is surely deserving of a modicum of praise.

Not to speculate too much into the reasons behind this triple crown of success (there are additional worthy pop-rock production credits in his background, plus a long, more recent career in the same capacity in the classical field), but, as the title and intro to this review make obvious, Leon is an artist himself. This reality surely didn’t guarantee that the man would be more understanding in regard to the desires and open to the core sounds of three groups making their debuts from inside an emerging rock subculture, but it couldn’t have hurt.

And I’m guessing that maybe by now Leon is tiring of how those production jobs, which occurred nearly a half-century ago, reliably serve as a lead-in when articles and reviews outline his own musical thing, and especially now that he and his partner, the vocalist Cassell Webb, are following-up the collected reissue of his first two LPs with new music. That the results here maintain such a high level of quality is certainly worth dwelling upon, particularly due to the significant passage of time.

Nommos and Visiting might’ve first impacted the consciousness of most contempo listeners through the release of Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1 back in 2014, but the contents are now over 35 years old, and that a second volume has emerged that not only doesn’t besmirch the whole undertaking but instead more than validates Leon’s perseverance with the concept is nearly as impressive a feat as his production achievements.

Undoubtedly helping matters is how Nommos and Visiting have retained an edge that eschews an aura of electronic quaintness (which isn’t the same as sounding contemporary; both connect as records made in their era, and that’s cool), and yet there’s no sense in the new album’s opener “The Earliest Trace” of Leon and Webb striving to just pick up where the prior works left off.

I mention Webb as her swirling voice, operatic and yet also, briefly, Modernist classical-inclined, emerges without delay; cyclical electronic wave surges follow, and in short order the track abruptly segues into “Standing Crosswise in the Square,” which also wastes no time in establishing two of the strengths from Vol. 1, specifically indefatigable rhythmic patterns and savvy sonic layering. When the melodious keyboard progression emerges in the track’s second half, suffice it to say it’s a highlight.

If the above track titles suggest something of a narrative, that’s astute. Building upon Leon’s fascination with the Malian Dogon tribe’s creation myth of an ancient visitation by the semi-amphibious alien race of the Nommos, Vol. 2 takes inspiration from William Stirling’s The Canon, though exactly how the music here fits in with that book I’m unsure.

The Canon is a mystical text, described by RVNG Intl. as an “anonymous exposition of cosmic law” first published in 1897 to something like zero interest and saved from obscurity through a mid-1970s reprint (courtesy of writer John Michell, a new name to me who seems to have been a maven of conspiracies and alternate histories and later in life, something of a curmudgeon). I haven’t read The Canon and have a sneaking suspicion I never will, but as it aided in Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2’s overall potency, I’m glad the tome exists.

“The Respondent in Dispute” continues to dish recurrent rhythmic drive and with it an atmosphere appropriate to the title’s sense of conflict plus another sweet transition, this one into “Four Floods of the Point,” a solid if durationally tidy dose of kosmische drift with integrated vocals that are appealingly subtle. “The Twenty Second Step as Well as the Tenth,” begins side two with some synth tones that put me in a momentary Suzanne Ciani-Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith frame of mind, but it’s not long before the general kosmische feel is reasserted, though here it’s less of a drifting and more of an ooze.

I can dig that. I can also dig what sounds like the incessant ringing of a synthetic triangle. It’s the little things that count. Initially, “The Gates Made Plain” does nothing to radically alter the program, but before long rhythm is again emphasized, this time tribal but with additional layered enhancements. And once more, the sound of “Departure” is thoroughly fitting to its title (in a sci-fi context) and brings Leon’s titular storyline of sorts to a satisfying close.

Yes, satisfying, though at just short of 41 minutes I wouldn’t have minded a little more. And by wouldn’t have minded, I essentially mean readily welcomed; Vol. 1 was a comp of two separate albums, but it ultimately cohered into a whole that carried the weight of the epic. By hey, this observation isn’t much more than a quibble, as what’s is here is unusually robust.

More importantly, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon “revisits the extraterrestrial origins of civilization” (per RVNG) in a manner that legitimately communicates to me the sense of awe (and a lingering questioning) Leon felt upon consideration of the mysterious and unexplained, rather than just leaving an impression comparable to an Ancient Aliens rerun or a stack of Time-Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown volumes. I’m not saying that stuff can’t be entertaining, I’m just arguing the what Leon and Webb are offering is a considerably heftier artistic proposition.


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