In April of 2020, Azusa released their sophomore album Loop of Yesterdays and I fell immediately and quite incurably in love with it. And how could I not? It’s an album that weds the cruise missile pacing and ruinous might of Holy Moses’ Finished With the Dogs to the upended physics n’ ambient blues of Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record. Its blood pressure lathers at Naked City levels of hypertension, it demagogues like Pussy Riot, it’ll grind your cutlery like South of Heaven and somehow also cloud-watches dreamily like Julie Cruise. At its heart, girding its battery of quirks is a ruthless, marvelous sense of economy, (one of the more developed sensibilities separating it from Azusa’s exceptionally good debut.) It feels like the scion of thrash metal royalty. It feels like a mathematical assertion. It feels like an Azusa ‘best of’ compilation from some still embryonic future and it shouldn’t be possible to exist as all of these things at once, yet it does so fluently. The album might as well come packaged inside of Schrodinger’s Box.
In my hoggish desire to sop up every last bit of jus that Loop of Yesterdays could possibly surrender I submitted an interview request to their label Solid State and was put in touch with Azusa bassist Liam Wilson, (ex-the Dillinger Escape plan, ex Starkweather, [these qualifiers will shadow him forever] and currently John Frum.) Per usual, I was inclined to have the interview talk around its subject matter rather than addressing it directly. I wanted to discuss an album or perhaps two that Liam felt had had the most profound impact on how he plays, what he’s moved to create and what he expects from great music. Choose whatever. Give me a week or so to catch up and let’s go. And listening back to the recording of our initial conversation, I’m surprised to hear how close Liam and I were to choosing Shudder to Think’s aforementioned Pony Express Record. I mean, does the pope wear pimp shoes, no further questions, decided. How could we resist? As Liam said, Pony Express Record is within smooching distance of perfection to the extent that it reminded him of the construct of the Persian Stitch.
The Persian Stitch? (I didn’t get the reference.) What’s that mean?
“Oh,” said Liam. “Well, the idea was that the carpet maker would make everything flawlessly with the exception of one intentional fuck-up. And they’d make sure to include that fuck-up so as not to challenge God.”
Got it; thank you. But Persian Stitch or no, Pony Express Record somehow didn’t make the final draft so see ya in hell, Shudder to Think, (regardless, I desperately want to hear Azusa cover S2T’s “Chakka.” Now, that would unequivocally fuck.)
Artists including Pharoah Sanders (RIP), Dead Can Dance and John Maclaughlin, [oh, I like this quote from Liam, “I think it’s interesting when you listen to John Mclaughlin because it truly feels like that dude has eliminated about as much ego as one could possibly eliminate in the artistic process and he’s kind of performing as if God is just enjoying what it’s like to enjoy a material body through the lens of a John Mclaughlin shaped form…”] get floated as worthy points of discussion but Liam keeps wheeling around two records in particular: 16 Horsepower’s Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes album and Cynic’s Focus. Both systemically cooky debut albums that also happen to be profoundly spiritual. This is superficially incidental but I don’t know… Anyone who’s even the least bit familiar with Liam Wilson is aware that he’s a deeply spiritual person who -after years of ecclesiastical spelunking- has largely cottoned to the Gaudiya Vaishnava school of Hindu thought. Though the divergences in their individual philosophies couldn’t be more stark, the discipline demanded of David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower) Methodist/Church of the Nazarene creed and the discipline elected by Paul Masvidal—who’s fidelity to Kriya Yoga and its pursuit of the mastery of energies may call for several hours of meditation a day—does bear a certain resemblance to Liam Wilson’s spiritual-hygiene practices. These albums make for interesting consorts to say the least.
I SAY THAT TO SAY
This piece is composed of two separate interviews conducted with Liam Wilson that are, (let’s call them,) vintage by this point as well as a recent chat with Paul Masvidal to satisfy some of the questions that Liam and I raised during the course of our conversation. How ‘vintage’, you ask? Let’s just say that when Liam and I discussed Sean Malone and his impact on nearly everything that Liam himself has touched as an artist, Sean was still with us. (As I recall, we would lose Sean Malone within the very week of this chat. I remember that announcement feeling like the business end of a scalpel.)
As I ended that second call with Liam I was struck by the keen desire to have a jaw with Masvidal as well. It felt important. I envisioned him as the piece’s natural satellite treading cooly around it. I decided that the entire affair would feel fragmentary and jackleg without his inclusion but—as even the lowest blunderbuss amongst us would assume—Paul Masvidal was in no emotional place to have a breezy chat about Focus at that particular point; I was a fool to pursue it. And—as it should happen—it’s all for the best that it didn’t take place then; ultimately, it would’ve just been more cargo for me to leave unshipped. My lengthy confab with Liam Wilson happened to be backlogged behind several other projects and as the world went from a Woodstock ’94 to a Woodstock ’99-degree shitastrophe and my personal life went from out of the frying pan and into the firing squad I began to wonder how Fallow Heart’s Decibel run would ever be resolved. My bleary-eyed attempts to pull this article together were hard-fails. My psyche was moonlighting as a remarkably diligent abortion clinic; my confidence had detonated. I was too frantic and too desperate to churn out something even remotely admissible, (much less something that would give Liam or Azusa their due.) It simply couldn’t be that what began as an exploration of music and critique colored by the lens of my admittedly doe-eyed spiritual pursuits could end on a note of such inarguable bad faith. (And indeed, that wouldn’t be the case—thank goodness—because it wasn’t meant to be.)
When the clouds began to part and there was finally enough daylight to take stock of—not only the extraordinary debris but also—the undeniable endowments deposited by the maelstrom of the past two-plus years I decided to try Masvidal once more. Hell, it couldn’t hurt and come what may, I was finally going to button up this run either way. And—wouldn’t you know it?—Masvidal responded to my request within the very hour that I valiantly depressed the ol’ ‘send’ button. As it should happen, he’s an admirer of Liam Wilson and, what’s more, Focus was rapidly approaching the 30th anniversary of its release. Paul Masvidal would soon be heading back to Miami to begin work on a remix and remaster of the record with Traced in Air and Ascension Codes mixer/producer Warren Riker. He was game to mull over that period of time for Fallow Heart because that happened to largely be where his head was at then anyways. To wit: Masvidal had begun his own loop of yesterdays and was cordial enough to allow me to tag along with him for a brief leg of it.
Perhaps best of all, my passion for Azusa and specifically for Loop of Yesterdays has shown to be fireproof. It has weathered a profusion of grief: long, humiliating lines at the food bank, threats of eviction, onerous medical bills, the inability to feed my own kid, addiction, intense familial anguish and general, ghoulish fuckstration. Through it all Loop of Yesterdays never tottered and it sure as fuck didn’t teeter; it remained deliriously luminous, refusing to be dimmed by the eruption of dust that seemed to coat everything else around it. It not only deserves accolades that it didn’t receive at the time of its release, it likely deserves accolades that mankind isn’t fully equipped to bestow. Loop of Yesterday’s was my unqualified pick for the number one album of 2020 and—in hindsight, for this record—that’s a trifling commendation at best. It is holy. Of that, I am certain.
It’s a good time for the last Fallow Heart examination for Decibel magazine, my beloved home plate. But just because we’re shambling up to the end credits here doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to discuss. For example, let’s talk about Azusa… by way of talking about something else.
Fallow Heart: In preparation of digging into the Focus record with you I was watching some of those old videos of Cynic performing back in ’94 and it’s just so f-ing bananas. Almost everything they did was the exact opposite of what you’d expect them to do. They’re touring with fucking Cannibal Corpse while wearing paisley button downs, they’ve got a woman handling the death metal vocals…
Liam Wilson: And looking back, not only was all of that pretty buck wild but the two founding members of the band were gay – just to add another layer of like, ‘alright, wait… What kind of world are you coming from?’ You know?
FH: Right. And what must that have been like for Masvidal and Reinert at that point!? They must have felt like they were posted up in the lion’s den—at least to some extent…
Wilson: Well, just let me quickly say—just to like, really dork out here—when I was 15 years old, I went to what was basically a band camp for rock and metal dudes up in Connecticut, and Sean Malone [Cynic’s bass player] was teaching up there. And as a somewhat older kid in that group and also as probably the only student there who actually knew who Cynic were, (I mean, there were Cynic-heads there, but they were all guitarists; the bass students weren’t really there for Sean, right?) So anyway, he and I got… tight enough, you know? Like, even up through the present day we’ll occasionally correspond. But anyway, I remember talking about why Cynic broke up, why things were always so different and difficult for that band; why they didn’t tour and he made some commentary about it, you know? He mentioned that it was rumored that people in the band were gay. And just for the record, my mom is gay. I was raised Roman Catholic but also my mom is gay so I always struggled because my grandparents and my dad were churchgoing and I spent a lot of time with them but my mom had distanced herself from all of that, (not so much distancing herself from God but from going to church and from participating in that community.) And, of course, it quickly occurred to me that no way is my mom going to Hell; that’s total bullshit.
FH: Right. So Sean Malone insinuates that maybe someone in this iconic death metal band was also gay…
Wilson: Yeah, right! Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked. So, I was automatically like, ‘Oh my God, if that’s true, then Cynic is now that much more one of my favorite bands just for being so different!’ And of course at the time I was wondering, is it Sean [Malone]? Just because the way he said it was very tactful, completely honoring the privacy of whoever it was. I don’t know, it was just an interesting interaction. So way back in like, ’95… Does that make sense? I would’ve been like, 15-ish? I don’t fucking know. But around that time, I was talking to him about this stuff. Basically, I feel like I’ve always kind of known but what I didn’t know was who it was. And not only that, I certainly didn’t know that it was actually the two founding members! And they weren’t even like a couple they were like… I don’t even know! The whole thing was just kind of like, holy shit! Not just because of Cynic, but then that means that Death also had two gay dudes in the band, which is even more of a middle finger to death metal purists, you know what I mean?
FH: I know speculation isn’t really worth squat but do you think that being being gay might have, in any way, made Paul Masvidal more receptive to the sort of spiritualism that would’ve been so anathema to mainstream thinking in general, and especially to death metal mores? Cynic’s spirituality is such a huge part of its character.
Wilson: Yeah… I think it’s dangerous to get into the like correlation is causation, you know? But, just being counterculture, just… and this is coming from my own philosophy that insists that I’m not my body, I’m not my thoughts; I’m a spirit. No matter what these other Western religions or belief systems or politics are saying about who I am because of my sex drive or orientation, that’s not me. And just because I might have these thoughts or these drives, that’s not me either. I’m not a body who has a soul. I’m a soul that has a body and this time around my body happens to be gay. So maybe as an overview, just looking down at the map of possible human experience and being dropped into the GPS of life—your pin, Paul Masvidal, is here—then yeah, maybe it’s automatically like, I need to be more open minded. Maybe even, ‘I have to be open minded because I want people to be open minded towards me.’ But, I don’t know, this is pure speculation. There’s a lot of straight people who are equally into mystical shit, you know? That’s like asking if Robert Plant has gay tendencies, because he wrote “Kashmere.”
FH: Sure. I guess where I’m coming from is more that death metal—in terms of its aesthetic makeup—depends so much on Christianity. Of course, it’s usually vituperatively anti-Christian, but it seems to need that boundary to kick off from in order to define itself regardless.
Wilson: Right. ‘There is no heaven without a hell,’ as Tom Araya would say.
FH: Exactly. God, what a fucking incredible point in that song by the way! [Liam and I both whisper-scream the line together.] “Read Between the Lies”… lord, it gives me chills. But anyway, whether or not you personally accepted the doctrine of contemporary Christianity, (and remember, we’re talking ’80s and early ’90s here,) not accepting homosexuality: that’s basically a given, right? Regardless, most people go on this journey of ceaseless struggle trying to wrangle themselves into a shape that conforms with some kind of subconscious preset, you know? Whereas, if you’re a young Paul Masvidal and you actually accept who you are—in and of itself a radical act—it seems more likely that you’ll start looking outside of the basic system that’s so familiar—one that, (whether Christian or anti-Christian) adamantly renounces such an important part of who you are- and start investigating other systems, which may easily drive one into Krishna consciousness or Buddhism (for example.)
Wilson: Yeah, I think so. And for me, in all of my self-realization journey I feel like the Krishna Conscious box… that philosophy just seems to be the deepest, the richest, the most beautiful and to have the best answers. Just to give a personal example: last September, I got diagnosed with cancer and my wife had a miscarriage in the same weekend. And when I talk to Christians or non-believers… my non-believer friends might give me a very practical response to this experience. Stats on miscarriages relative to our age, blah, blah, blah, which is fair, you know? I honor what you’re saying, but it doesn’t really speak to how I’m feeling. It’s just very pragmatic. And then, you know, my Christian friends might say something else. Something like, ah, you know, ‘God needed his little angel back,’ you know?
FH: Right. He Who Shall Not Be Named has zero qualms against take-backs when He’s in a mood.
Wilson: Something like that, yeah. But when I talk to my Gaudiya Vaishnava friends, they’d say something like, ‘Oh, what a great service you both did! That baby probably only had like nine or 10 weeks of karma left to burn and you two, being the uplifting, highly vibrational souls that you are, you did that baby such a great service by helping liberate it and finally setting it free from the cycle of birth and death.’ It’s just like, ‘Whoa, okay. I much prefer that point of view.’ And I actually vibrate with that on a deeper level too—not just because it’s comforting but it just actually sounds and feels more correct. Maybe it’s slightly more fantastic. But you know, the concept of giant lizards that used to walk around Earth 500 million years ago sounds pretty fantastic, too. So, what the fuck do I know? I’m really skeptical about saying I understand much of anything anymore. I just know what sounds good to me and what my experience tells me and then like, what roughly 5,000 years of written tradition, and probably 5,000 years of mouth to ear tradition before that was written down in some of the oldest religious texts we have. I may as well at least give it a little credence.
And as far as the cancer is concerned, like, most of my friends would be like, ‘Oh, that fucking sucks. Why you, dude?’ while my Gaudiya Vaishnava friends would be like you know, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity! This didn’t happen to you, this happened for you.’ And I’d be like, Yeah, that’s a fucking great twist. I like that perspective; I can get down with that. Takes a little bit of bravery and a leap of faith but like, cool. What else do I have going for me right now? I’m obviously not in control of anything.
FH: Right. Things begin to feel more comprehensively sound through this sort of lens. There’s an arc to our experience.
So we were talking about discussing your relationship to one album and then it wound up becoming two albums. And we vacillated a lot on Focus because—as you said—it has been talked about a lot, but I think that there hasn’t been much of a deep-dive devoted to exploring it from a lyrical standpoint. The real beauty to me is juxtaposing it with Sackcloth and Ashes. That’s an amazing one-to-one and I’m really glad we struck on that.
So, when you were pouring over those lyrics for Cynic’s Focus, did they resonate with you at all at that point? Were you intrigued by them, or was it just something that you could comfortably shrug off?
Wilson: I mean… they definitely touched me. But—truth be told—when I first heard the record, (at that same camp that I would later go to and get those lessons from Sean Malone; maybe two years on) I was able to get a high-speed dub of it on my double deck tape player so when I came home, I listened to it a little bit, and I kind of just… I don’t know, it was just like a hodgepodge of shit—the tape, I mean. Like, I probably went up there with like, five Maxell tapes and came home with like, 20 tapes worth of crap just kind of randomly dubbed like, ‘Okay, I’ll get three of these songs and give me two of those,’ and just trying to make it work, right? But shortly after that I found the Cynic Focus CD in a used CD bin. I brought it home and once again, basically left it there collecting dust. And then, that summer… I remember that that was kind of like my summer of firmly demanding my independence from my mom and my parents in general. And I remember doing a lot of acid and psychedelics and shit at that time. And I remember taking microdots one day and them not working. Hours go by; nothing. I’d been out with some friends, then I came home and all at once -like, literally the second that I came in and shut my bedroom door—the microdots fucking kicked in turbo-hard and I ended up staying up and basically just listening to Focus, like probably six or seven times in a row. I put it on in the CD player next to my bed with headphones attached to them and was just like, ‘let me try this out.’ And then all at once, because the tape deck recording I’d made sounded horrible, but I finally realized like, ‘Holy shit, there’s so much going on here!’ And maybe it was just like I needed to hear it on psychedelics. So basically, that moment is so crystal clear and it felt like one of those moments in life where you’re like, ‘This is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. My whole life has been leading up to this very moment.’ And I could also feel that my life from that point on was never going to be the same and that it was going to have a weird mile-marker effect many, many times going forward. Joining Dillinger Escape Plan being another one of those moments, getting lessons from Sean Malone being another moment, having this conversation with you being yet another moment where this record is kind of like a thread that goes through my life. And so, I remember that evening with my third eye smashed open and hearing certain things like “I’m but a Wave To…” The intro to that song was like, ‘Who would do this?’ You know? Like, what metal band would make this choice? Or like “Sentiment.” It’s just like, ‘What the fuck are these lyrics?’ You know? But because I had a CD, I had the lyrics. At that time, the CD book and the lyrics were just such a part of it. And I remember reading these lyrics and wondering what the fuck are these guys talking about!? Like “The Eagle Nature. “Maybe Focus’s lyrics are like psychedelics for some people. They check them out and it doesn’t really do that much for them but for me, it was like, ‘Fuck! This is so intense!’ So those lyrics immediately just fucking smashed my third eye open. And words like ‘ahamkara’ for, ‘false ego’…shit like that. I was just like, ‘What the fuck is this term?’ And, of course, now, I’m very familiar with it. And there was also just the feeling of revisiting a place I’ve been to before, you know? And maybe you’ve experienced this with sacred literature related stuff where you’re just like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m learning this so much as being reminded of it.’ There was just this feeling of maybe being a devotee in a past life and in this incarnation, I’m finally hearing these teachings again and this is kind of like what’s bringing me back. I mean, long answer, but…
FH: No, that’s great. It’s really all about you and your relationship to the album. And I love that story. It’s interesting to me that it didn’t gel immediately with you. I think probably… fuck, for a lot of people, just the vocoded vocals alone were enough for a lot of people to hit stop and call it a day.
Wilson: Yeah! And maybe again, because I was high on acid, I was open to it. You’re right, I’d heard it and it didn’t really grip me weeks earlier on tape but something about the CD and being high as fuck, that vocoder was like, the coolest, most futuristic thing I’d ever heard.
FH: Yeah, and they were on fucking Roadrunner; not anyone’s go-to for sojourns into the avantgarde, Scott Burns produced it, you kind of knew Cynic from Death already. Focus should’ve sounded innocuous and familiar and it didn’t sound innocuous and familiar in any way. Personally, I don’t have that sharp memory of the first time I listened to it but I do know that I spent a lot of time just breaking Focus down piece by piece. I’ll say, if you compare it to the demos, one of the things that they’d apparently really learned, (and this is something that I can kind of loop back to Azusa because you guys do this as well,) is that Cynic learned or devoted themselves to a type of very legible songcraft in the way that a band along the lines of a Watchtower, or an Atheist absolutely did not. Those guys just didn’t care about sewing those patterns neatly together, buttoning them up in a way that was very legible where you had a verse leading into a bridge and a chorus and a structure that intuitively made sense. You know?
Wilson: Yeah, I mean, because if you hear, for example, the demo for “Uroboric Forms” and then listen to the album version, you’re like, ‘whoa, the demo’s almost unlistenable.’ It’s just like, ‘what’s actually happening here?’ And this is coming from me: with Dillinger, people would say the same thing because it’s very stream of consciousness and things often don’t repeat. But yeah, like you said Watchtower or like Atheist, it’s just like, random idea, random idea, random idea. In the case of Watchtower, it’s like, perfectly executed. In the case of Atheist, it’s like, questionably… (and that’s a pun,) questionably executed. A little sloppy, you know? Great ideas, but pretty loose from my point of view, especially compared to Cynic.
FH: Yeah, I would say it’s a much bigger ask of the listener than what something like Focus or Loop of Yesterdays is proposing.
Wilson: Focus is focused!
FH: Right! Actually, I’m so glad that 25-plus years on we finally cooked up the perfect tagline for this album. I’ll get right on the horn with Monte Conner. He’s going to be so relieved; we can finally start moving some units! But yeah, it’s giving you an album of songs as opposed to giving you an album of free association. Neither approach is wrong but Azusa writes songs and that’s partially what sets Azusa apart from much of the technical flock. You’re actually writing tunes. No matter how complicated and oblique they may be internally, they’re still fucking songs that you can actually follow.
Wilson: Yeah. complicated parts organized in a digestible way.
FH: That’s a good way to put it.
Wilson: You know, it’s kind of like when you go to a really nice restaurant. Yeah sure, when dinner arrives you might see more plate than food, but the food you see is like, ‘what the fuck is this? This is tasty. I never would’ve thought to put those two flavors together.’ You know, it’s composed and it’s a little bit more artsy. It’s not a buffet.
FH: There’s no sneeze guard.
Wilson: No! It’s definitely more, you know, art food from my point of view, (and maybe that’s a little snobby but, you know, guilty as charged…)
Let’s briefly step into the breakroom—that is, any old snaggle of Spacetime that exists outside the margins of this interview—for a spell so that Liam and I can embark on our more granular, track by track analysis of Focus in Part II and so that you can properly digest your art food. For those familiar with Fallow Heart’s previous dispatches, it may be surprising to find this series to be so straightforward and undemanding as opposed to an archipelago of allusions and woolgathering. In all honesty, I’m surprised as well and believe me, that version of this article was all but written more than once over the last year and a half or so but those attempts were, (how do you say?) utter swamp-honky trash. Refracting everything through the meniscus of the Pistis Sophia or George William Russel’s musings on the supernatural objectives of The Holy Roman Empire sounds impressive but—I suppose—an obscenely paraphrastic treatment is bound to make what’s already a paraphrastic enterprise, (to learn more about Liam Wilson and Azusa by talking about something interesting to Liam Wilson,) structurally unsound to say the least. So this’n will do precisely what it advertises. Feeling relieved, my Slime? Lovely. Then I look forward to our rendezvous in The Origin of Life Part II. Later, skater.
Contemplating your hands for hours,
Hoping to get some answers from your palms,
You’re your own biggest mystery,
Unable to read the manual
—“Skull Chamber,” Azusa
I wash my hands till the water burns
A circle sits outside a door
‘Are you expected here?’
I whisper in your ear.
—“Evolutionary Sleeper,” Cynic
The Varada Mudra is a gesture of compassion and wish-granting. In the Varada Mudra, the open right hand is held palm outward, fingers pointing down. It represents open-handed generosity and granting of wishes.