Bill Bissett can roughly be considered the Canadian equivalent to Allen Ginsberg, an oracular poet who found a home among the psychedelic vanguard of the late '60s with an incantatory live blend of performance art and avant-garde rock. Bissett, though, is an even more abstruse scribe who deconstructs language by stripping away conventional syntactical considerations. It is willfully difficult but frequently rewarding as a reading experience because it is such visual work, but how well the poetry works as a recorded, musical one depends largely on how far you're willing to go to meet the music. The answer certainly isn't clear-cut. For those who like their music readily accessible or tuneful, the album is likely to initially inspire hair pulling and probably unsatisfied surrender in the end. But for those who are willing to work at it, to listen in the same artful spirit with which the music was made, Awake in the Red Desert can stretch your definition of rock. It might, in fact, be the best way to grasp the poet's muse, since you don't have to visually decipher his grammar and spelling tricks. That, however, doesn't necessarily make this any more accessible or easier to absorb. The music is fragmented, noisy, spaced-out, repetitive, and Dadaistic. Occasionally either the Mandan Massacre's playing or Bissett's vocal experiments sound unnatural and forced. With that said, there is something vaguely hypnotic about the almost onomatopoeic chants that make up the album, and gradually it becomes apparent that Bissett has designed the undertaking as a celebration of awakening to language and its ability to open up avenues of consciousness. The album vacillates between chaotic raga-rock heavy on the raga or on the rock side with additional Native American ceremonial hints. It utilizes musique concrète, tape loops, sound collaging, and a primitive synthesizer called the Buchla box, very much forward-looking concepts, an experiment that might have been possible only in its time but pays off more often than it doesn't. It won't be to the tastes of most fans of even '60s rock music. It is much too caustic and intentionally ugly, a highly esoteric taste to be sure. But those who revel in incredibly strange music will find ideas worth holding on to.
AllMusic Review by Stanton Swihart