Johnny Kafta Anti-Vegetarian Orchestra is a band from Lebanon that was born from the coming together of a free improv collective and a punk group, the result being a merger not so much of styles but of humors. The irreverence normally associated with these two kinds of music shines beyond the playful confrontational attitude displayed in the band’s name, building a very restrained record that is filled with an ironic virtuosity, a precise sort of musicianship that constantly mocks itself. This is heard in the juxtaposition of ‘low’, inept, failed sounds (some of which, to give one example, remind of bodily emissions) with ‘high’, accomplished bits of improv, the sort that only skilled jazz musicians can achieve. The album honors the name of the label in the way it develops through these highs and lows, pushing the band’s foundational incompatibility in form to the fore, making the one major commonality – humorous playing that stems from an ethos of freedom – a key to follow the music’s ebb.
Many sections, particularly within the last track, “In Praise of Habra”, reminded me of Rock in Opposition, sharing with it the late avant-garde drive to create spaces of freedom in the artistic dependency to forms (as rules). Johnny Kafta melds two approaches together: rules are organic and they flow in the conversational manners of free improv (you make them), and rules are inorganic, institutional, an external imposition (you break them). The music thus feels like a game of tug-o-war in which everything seems like it belongs, like something definitely not out of a jam session, but at the same time the whole thing seems like it’s about to burst, to fail… it feels like an erratic progression (“don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it”, as someone famously put it) that is always at odds with itself.
This strangeness is also the source of what’s funny about the album, the self-conscious wink that makes even the most serious-sounding parts (“Feed the Hostage”) feel overdramatized in a way that makes them seem silly. You’re listening to a full-freakout cosmic jam, thinking maybe of Can, and all of a sudden that turns over to a “Lullaby” in which all the instruments make weird animal-like sounds, cruising from the edges of space directly into a farm. If such an image is funny to you, then you will surely find something to like in this S/T, full as it is with uneasy contrasts and clashing ideas that generate, if anything, something quite unique. (David Murrieta)