on instant karma cannot get me
For some human expressions there is no divine time, no appointment with the zeitgeist, no cozy alignment with destiny. Most acquiesce to anonymity, fading into the cluttered graveyard of cultural ephemera. Others refuse to succumb, persisting on the margins, lurking like nagging, disjointed dreams, vampiric, resigned to the long night, taking death on the installment plan...
CLAIR YOUNG BRIGHT photo
Initially united in 1990 as Darke County and trafficking in a brand of debonair Neo-Noir Americana, singer composer Jeffrey Bright, guitarist and arranger/composer Eric Schulz, bassist Chris Green, and drummer Christopher Fisher underwent a curious metamorphosis in summer 1991. Propelled by a sharper, edgier sound, more topically awake, mortally serious but shaded with surrealist humor, the foursome emerged as Myself a Living Torch and first performed at San Francisco’s Blue Lamp on Saturday, August 17 that year.
After recording a set of demos at Guerrilla Euphonics in Oakland and subsequently completing an EP at San Francisco’s Brilliant Studios — the self-released, 6-song Citizen Self — over the course of several months spanning 1992 and 1993 the band dove back into crafting new material and recording more demos, preparing for a full length follow up. Informed by the intensive, detailed work of making the Norman Kerner-produced EP at Brilliant and exploring the bounds of their updated art rock persona, what resulted were over 20 recordings that likely represent the best the quartet had to offer — yet were never heard outside the band’s closest circle.
Previously unreleased, distributed or marketed, these recordings were captured on 8-track tape in the band’s rehearsal room and home studio on Minna Street in what was then a raw, post-industrial sector of the San Francisco’s SOMA district. In 2020, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the recordings were rescued from their original 1/4-inch tapes, restored, and in some cases finished with additional tracking. Now, 30 years from inception, roughly half of this material has been resurrected with Instant Karma Cannot Get Me.
Whereas their work prior to Citizen Self was in many ways an extension of Darke County’s quasi-kitsch shadow play, MaLT’s output after swaps that mid-century romanticism for a prickly, sardonic stance. The post-CS compositions rattle and roar with stubborn impertinence, at times soaring to anthemic heights, other times slithering on the floors of a particularly dystopian pathos. Obliquely political, profane, sweetly savage, perpetually, purposefully and obstinately outside its own time, but deeply rooted in its own geography, IKCGM is nothing less than a doomsday catalog presented in 10 swelling guitar symphonies — 10 cryptic voyages into the subconscious galaxy — surf music for an astral tsunami, speeding toward an unreachable, unknowable shore. Conjoined with its (forthcoming) sister LP, The Human Condition, Instant Karma Cannot Get Me can be seen as the zenith as well as the beginning of the subsequent phase-out of the project that was Myself a Living Torch. By mid-1994 the restless collective of Bright, Schulz, Green & Fisher had once again shed its skin to reveal yet another creature.
In all, MaLT’s three-year output reflects a perilous moment in the human arc: a period when love, romance and physical consummation were bedfellows with folly, when hope and the natural optimism of youth necessarily came wrapped in irony’s protective cloak. In the MaLT tableau, expressive guitar arrangements, trippy beats and distinctively tasteful bass figures, repeatedly set the stage for hyper-aware protagonists locked in conflict with a litany of existential snares. Seemingly, amidst the AIDS plague then still exacting a toll, all love is fatal and heartbreak inevitable. Here a question forever surfaces: Why even try at love?
In response, shrines are erected to impermanence; the dreamer’s infinity is championed; ships are launched toward a horizon of liberation, fueled by an embrace of the feminine blue — erotic, titillating, beyond the bedroom, deeper than flesh, spiritual. With a stroke, however, monuments crumble and the ships shot down. Always, a gnawing feeling permeates. Arrows are aimed at so many policy failures — the detritus of the decade prior hamstrung by a myopic, fearful political and cultural conservatism: If the 1970s were years of unrepentant promiscuity, the 1980s were backlash, a period of constriction, correction and trepidation for social adventurers, tainting the luster of bohemian life in America's most bohemian city. By the early 1990s, the damage done was palpable. With the onset of the Internet boom in the mid-1990s, in many ways, San Francisco’s poetic age had come to an end, fin de siécle.
But, oh, the glamorous and melodramatic doom. Oh, the velvet ennui. Resistance is its own aphrodisiac. The underground always finds a way. Art will be rendered. Statements must be made. Spirit prevails where the vessel fails. Instant karma cannot get me; I’ve already been had!
Ultimately, all flames extinguish, some too intense to last. But the music created by Myself a Living Torch between summer 1991 and fall 1993 will continue to smolder. Fittingly, Instant Karma Cannot Get Me closes on a defiant (if wistful and fully self-conscious) note, one emblematic and precisely defining MaLT’s insistence that one’s journey to the edge of existence is ever more important than what will be found, if indeed there is anything there at all.
“We sleep until noon in a dusty cocoon / We swallow the time like a bloodthirsty wine / We stare down the moon through the sunshades of doom / And we say we’ve got it made.”
ARI FAINCHTEIN photo
The full Instant Karma Cannot Get Me LP is now available worldwide. Find a link to your favorite streamer here. A deluxe CD edition will be available for purchase by mid-June, 2021.