Graded on a Curve:
Craig Leon, Nommos

Craig Leon is best known as a record producer. Amongst other achievements he oversaw three of the most auspicious LPs in the first wave of US punk, the first albums from Suicide, Blondie, and the Ramones. The enduring success of these documents is enough to ensure him something much more than just album-credit footnote status, but he’s also a musician, and in the ‘80s he released a few records. Superior Viaduct’s outstanding vinyl reissue of his 1981 debut Nommos finds Leon in command of a highly developed experimental approach that was decades ahead of its time.

Craig Leon has a ton of producer credits on his resume, and there’s a whole lot of interesting music residing in that number, including work for such worthy names as Willie “Loco” Alexander, DMZ, The Go-Betweens, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and The Fall. But where these name-checks basically point to the breadth of his abilities as a coordinator/guide, after consideration three of the biggest (and earliest) entries in his production bag actually serve as the indicator of his advisory talents.

Blondie (co-produced with Richard Gottehrer), Ramones, and Suicide (co-produced with Marty Thau) find Leon at the helm of three disparate streams of punk’s early potential. In the first case, there’s the swankness of unabashed pop accessibility. In the second comes the stripped-down brilliance of the music’s core. And in the third lies the rewards of the outer fringe.

That Leon was able to understand, and at a very early stage, that it was all coming from one vital regenerative impulse is testimony to his acumen (he also produced the early recordings of Richard Hell & the Voidoids), and that he was such a staunch advocate of the Ramones as something much more than just an oddball neighborhood band (according to Tommy Ramone he was instrumental in their getting signed to Sire) makes him quite a crucial figure in punk’s whole development.

Since around 1998 Leon’s production expertise has been devoted almost exclusively to classical music, a field where he’s found much success. However, the one area in his background that continues to hover far underneath the radar is his ‘80s output as a musician, but with the return to circulation of his first LP Nommos that circumstance will hopefully change.

Setting aside the rather startling sonic properties of Nommos, the record has an interesting history. It was originally issued on John Fahey’s Takoma label, but don’t let the association lead to an assumption that Nommos is in some way inclined towards the sound of American folk, because that’s way off base. If a huge gulf exists between the general gist of the music Takoma released and the methodically electronic sound of Leon’s first LP, the reason for the relationship comes down to Fahey’s deep and eclectic tastes.

While the vast reach of his interests wouldn’t really become fully apparent until he co-founded the Revenant label in ‘90s, Fahey occasionally pushed outside the folk/blues zone with Takoma as well. In the early days there were psychedelic jazz extremists Phil Yost and Charlie Nothing, and towards the end of Takoma’s run (tied to a distribution deal with Chrysalis whose days were numbered) there was an album of a poetry-reading from Charles Bukowski (issued a few years before Buk’s notoriety as the undisputed champ of all hard-living prole word-slingers really began ramping up) and Leon’s Nommos.

As stated, by this period Chrysalis was about done with Takoma, but according to an online interview with Leon, instead of crying over the imminent end, Fahey decided to use the opportunity to throw some stylistic outliers into the equation. Problem was, the number of albums pressed was distressingly low, with the result that for decades Nommos’ brilliance went undetected by far too many. And part of the problem was a lack of advocacy. Other than a review from Julian Cope’s website Head Heritage, the record’s biggest proponents over the years have been a handful of inspired bloggers.

So, Superior Viaduct’s reissue of the LP helps to increase the profile of a hunk of aural history that was once essentially lost, but in doing so the label makes a quiet case for the LP not as a curiosity from another era but as a full-blown classic for the here and now, and one that holds very little overt connection to Leon’s prior role as a shaper of the punk pantheon.

Leon has stated that his main influences for the album were Malian music and the work of George Antheil, specifically the composer’s “Ballet Mécanique,” a mechanical music score for a Dadaist film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy. With Nommos, Leon utilized the rhythmic aspects of the Dogon tribe of Mali and combined them with ancient Greek melodies in an attempt to recreate the music of the Dogon’s folkloric alien ancestors.

If there are any significant ties to his punk past, it comes through a lack of guitar (or at least that seems to be the case) and an incessant repetition, two elements that are deeply present in the work of Suicide. In fact, that Head Heritage review posited this record as being the missing link between the work of Rev and Vega and the avant-minimalist creations of Terry Riley and La Monte Young.

And I can surely dig that assessment, but it bears mentioning how quickly, at least to these ears, Nommos’ opener “Ring of Three Concentric Circles” puts any major similarities to Suicide in the rear view mirror. Increasing instead is that comparison to the aforementioned New York composers, particularly Riley (but not really Glass or Reich, just in case you’re wondering.)

The intensity of cyclical musical motifs is edgier and more clinical (and in a manner that’s totally appealing) than the overall thrust of Riley’s oeuvre, and yet the beauty of the rising tones that envelop the track’s persistent rhythm remain in loose keeping with the sounds offered up on such LPs as Rainbow in Curved Air and In C.

It’s a fantastic start to the record, but the next cut “Donkeys Bearing Cups” increases the music’s unflagging rhythmic complexion and combines it with lengthy, harsher strands of keyboard/synth for a result that’s very remindful of ‘70s Krautrock while simultaneously sounding like it could’ve been recorded last week.

In the present tense, Nommos is certainly relatable to happenings prior to its 1981 origin, but the album is so singular in how it unwinds that it dates itself hardly at all, and by extension Superior Viaduct’s claim for the record having little context at the time of its arrival rings as truth rather than the typical strains of press-related hyperbole.

The title track closes the first side, the piece employing the same basic strategies at the previous two, except that the keyboard/synth tones build gradually, subtly shifting the focus from pure rhythm to a sweetly drifting field of sound that should please many a fan of the drone. Like the opener, it offers a gorgeous extended texture without once resorting to any New Age shenanigans; Leon’s intention isn’t to lull the listener into a nap-like state but instead to place them in a setting that’s blissful yet assertive.

Side two opens with “Four Eyes to See the Afterlife,” and as the longest of Nommos’ five selections (at 11:25) it sorta serves as the record’s centerpiece, achieving this through deepening the same basic methods found on side one and integrating the sound of a female voice into the track’s scenario. It’s a savvy addition; this is most assuredly an experimental LP, but it was also made by a guy who understood the importance of not having the potential audience become fidgety through a lack of variation and vitality.

Additionally, it should be noted that Leon’s debut was conceived as a dance piece, and as such was used by The Twyla Tharp dance troupe (and also as the opening exhibition for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1981), but where a lot of music created in this mode loses its spark when removed from the art of the human body in physical motion, Nommos stands up tall.

And I keep getting struck by how downright contemporary it sounds. In fact, on first listen the progressions of “She Wears a Hemispherical Skull Cap” reminded me very much of Dan Deacon. I’d say that anybody who digs the motions of that Baltimore dude could cozy right up to this baby without the slightest hindrance.

These days he takes care of business with Sir James Galway and Luciano Pavarotti, but it’s abundantly clear through reading his website bio that Nommos continues to be a source of pride for Craig Leon. And well it should, for it’s a brilliant example of conceptually driven electronic experimentalism at its most undiluted and engaging. That Nommos is ripe for rediscovery by a whole new audience is an excellent turn of events.


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