After the huge success, musical if not commercial, of his avant-garde supergroup, Last Exit, the expectations were enormously high for Bill Laswell's next idea along those lines. In Arcana, he brought free music pioneer and guitar legend Derek Bailey together with drumming demigod Tony Williams to create, along with Laswell's own ultra-deep bass, the ultimate freely improvising power trio. And, for a while, it works amazingly well.
The opening track, Broken Circle is, for its first nine minutes, an astonishingly powerful piece of music. Bailey, as listeners to his work well know, has his own utterly idiosyncratic approach to guitar playing and he rarely, if ever, adjusts that approach to the situation at hand. While Laswell and Williams lay down overwhelmingly strong and throbbing rhythmic grooves, Bailey soars, skronks and screams above, providing enormous and exhilarating tension. This is freely improvised rock at its finest. But then, for the last three minutes, the tension breaks and the trio noodles aimlessly while Laswell attempts a few funk riffs which fail to re-ignite the fire.
Much of the remainder of the album vacillates between these moments of inspiration and wandering in search of them. If the heights of the first piece are never quite achieved again, there is still a great deal of fine playing and group interaction in evidence. While Laswell and Williams tend to fall into blues or funk patterns when all else fails, Bailey is consistently imaginative, coaxing undreamt of sounds from his guitar and providing the necessary creative fuel for this generally very successful session. In fact, listeners who have been cowed by Bailey's "difficult" reputation could do worse than starting here.