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RHYS CHATHAM (Buy CDs by this artist)
Factor X (Ger. Moer Music) 1984
Die Donnergötter (Ger. Dossier) 1987 (Homestead) 1989
Do It Twice (Ger. Dossier) 1988

For years, folks even marginally acquainted with NYC's downtown music scene have been treated to an ongoing dialogue about which came first, the chicken or the egg. What's unique about this particular debate is that the chicken and egg themselves — Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca — have been doing all the shouting about just which composer/performer caught the no wave first. One thing's for certain: Chatham's tightrope walk across the rock/classical gorge began firmly on the "legitimate" side, so his work has often courted rockists with an assumed thumbs-up from "serious" music fans — the reverse of Branca's approach.

Factor X is an aberration. The volume's certainly there, but the free jazzers who are called upon to deliver the goods simply don't have that swing (with the notable exception of drummer Anton Fier, at his most authoritarian here).

Die Donnergötter comprises three wildly different pieces (written and recorded several years apart). The earliest, "Guitar Trio" (on which Chatham and future Ordinaire Joe Dizney are axepeople) is the most visceral, with a slack, extended-time structure that pulls taut at the most unexpected moments. "Waterloo, No. 2" dispenses with guitars entirely, using an art-damaged drum and trombone corps (Chatham again) to create a rather rote bit of militaria. The side-long title track, however, is a real jewel. Using six guitars playing interlocking melodies, Chatham weaves an intricate tapestry that's alternately ear-splitting and nearly Eastern in its delicacy (not to mention a recurring theme that sounds exactly like the coda of "Marquee Moon"). Participants in the piece include future members of the Band of Susans.

Recently, Chatham has upped the pain-threshold ante by performing a piece ("An Angel Moves too Fast to See") with one hundred electric guitars. Get the fuses and the earplugs ready!

[David Sprague]