Having closely followed all forms and manifestations of Alan Bishop’s output for the last ten years, his solo Alvarius B. performances are some of the most exciting dates on the calendar. Short tours seem to pop up without warning every two or three years. The allure is to catch a fleeting glimpse of one of the underground’s most unusual and prolific entities: a man seemingly possessed by some mystical, dark force but still able to deftly pull off moments of sublime beauty with his left-field folk songs. Cigarette firmly clenched in his teeth and dark sunglasses tightly wrapped around his face, Bishop looks like a time-traveler, but I couldn’t tell you if he was from the past or the future—maybe both.
On stage, Bishop mixes faded folk ditties with fragile Arab and Asian inspired melodies and twisted covers of pop songs. Between songs, he takes a few drags and talks to the audience, providing a running, stream-of-conscious commentary on whatever is really pissing him off at the moment. He’s the kind of guy you figure might have spent some time on a no-fly list. He also continues to maintain a level of outsider mystique that is getting harder and harder to find these days.
After the death of Sun City Girls drummer Charles Gocher in 2007, which marked the end of that much-loved band, Bishop has sporadically mixed in these solo performances with running his Sublime Frequencies record label and maintaining a fairly active recording presence under his moniker Alvarius B. The rapid decline of the New Weird America influence on the underground over the last decade and the death knell of the for-better-or-worse “freak folk” scene have not impeded Bishop’s fearless march towards underground legend status. The considerable weight on his shoulders of carrying on the spiritual legacy of Sun City Girls through his own music and also through the pan-global experimental sounds found on his record label does not appear to be a burden, but an impetus.
The new Alvarius B. release, With a Beaker in the Burner and an Otter in the Oven, out now on Abduction as a double CD or triple LP set, finds Bishop at one of the creative zeniths of a four-decade career filled with high points. The thirty-five new songs were recorded in Cairo—Bishop’s adopted home—between 2014 and 2017, with both western and non-western musicians in his backing band, and are split up deliberately into three volumes.
The first thing that seasoned fans of the artist will notice is the startling production of the album. One thread that has connected his previous solo albums has been a lo-fi quality with hisses, like a dusty old LP, that gave a detached, warped vibe to his transmissions. None of that is to be found here, and one wonders about the nature of the decision from the artist to be more, dare I say, accessible. After all, Bishop has spent his entire career antagonizing the masses, with his impish sense of humor, stoned paranoia, and penchant for confrontation.
The first volume of the album is entitled “Natural Wonder,” and the artist describes it in a press release as “innocent and straight, like cancer.” Sure enough, the straight and listenable proceedings showcase a gentler, more blissed-out side of Bishop than we may have ever seen. “The Fort” is a highlight, with a hummable melody that brings to mind the meandering, luscious sublime of an Ennio Morricone earworm. These passages begin to take a darker turn on the final song of the volume called “The Reason,” which is classic Bishop, blood and guts included, and closes with the foreboding lyric, “Have I lied or have I warned you / doesn’t matter they fuckin’ own you.”
Volume two, with the peculiar name “Mark Twain August,” finds the artist in the full flow of a twangy, cowboy psychedelic sound on several tracks, like something more closely associated with the cosmic American music of the 1970s. Tracks like the title one, “Mark Twain August,” along with “Dark in My Heart,” “Locust Rain,” and “Trains,” best capture this off-kilter swagger and are among the highlights on the entire album. However, the stand-out track is “Me and Me,” which ranks among the best pop songs he’s ever written, covering a lot of ground in less than three minutes with punchy verses and a fun chorus.
Bishop calls the final volume of the trilogy, “Heathen Folklore,” “more fucked up than the other two volumes.” It is the most reminiscent of his previous albums. The songs here are more layered, the instruments more varied, and Bishop’s snarl is in force. Songs like “GPS” and “Cantaloupe Brain” infuse surreal, twisted lyrics with driving psych rock rhythms, and the closer, “Wanted Man,” is a ridiculous cover of the Bob Dylan classic with a provocative twist on the original lyrics. The trilogy’s gradual transition from melodic and immediately listenable to dark and subversive seems a logical course to follow. That is not to say that this album is like a Trojan horse, presenting a candy-coated exterior to trick unfamiliar listeners, but like the best of Bishop’s material, it’s full of juxtaposition. Eleven years after the end of Sun City Girls, their spirit is alive and well.