The CD title Sketches of Pain is an obvious pun, and Belgian funny-guy guitarist Pierre Vervloesem likes to throw witty and punning titles around, but the cover photo, a bull's-eye-view alternative to the Miles Davis album's cover art, does not seem intended to provoke smiles. The music on this 2010 debut release by Vervloesem's Caca octet is not a treatise against bullfighting, however. The entirely instrumental Sketches of Pain revisits the energetic sounds of the first band that brought the guitarist a modicum of international attention: X-Legged Sally, which burst onto the scene in 1991 with the Bill Laswell-produced avant jazz-rock extravaganza Slow-Up. Vervloesem didn’t lead XLS -- that crown was held by reedman/composer Peter Vermeersch, who went on to front the big band Flat Earth Society -- but the group was an important showcase for his advanced electric guitar sonics nevertheless. A solid yet nimble and driving rhythm section underpinned tight saxophone riffing, and the group delivered concise tunes with precision, fire, humor, and attitude. Vervloesem was in the thick of it all, one of XLS' true standout players. As a leader, Vervloesem has since proved to be an avant six-string master with a Zappa-esque streak, and while experimentation is key to his oeuvre (or Chef-d'Oeuvre), at heart he loves to rock, playing in lineups with powerful support from electric bass, keyboards, and drums.
Here, the slammin' and tight saxes are back: in fact, four of them -- alto, tenor, baritone, and bass -- accenting, punctuating, unison riffing, and soloing like the XLS of 20 years earlier. With all those saxmen (including two borrowed from FES), one might be tempted to view this disc through a jazz lense, but Sketches of Pain rocks as hard as anything Vervloesem has ever done, rarely letting up across its 11 concise tracks. And yet rock is just one piece of the puzzle; expect swift kicks from genre to genre even within a single track, and lunatic juxtapositions abound. The fractured high-energy opening blast of "Twist" screams, swings, and spaces out (thanks to the always inventive voicings and harmonic acumen of keyboardist -- and XLS member -- Peter Vandenberghe), while the spy music soundtrack pastiche of "Sweet" features a tango segment, "Abracadabra" includes parodic blues and rock & roll, and "Wobbling" meets Zappa under the circus big top. Noisy buzz-saw blasts pepper the insistently pounding slo-mo funk of "Exposé" (with its Middle Eastern-flavored theme), "Nancy" is comparatively lilting and dreamy (before it collapses, that is), and the closing maximalist "Koyaanisqaqatsi" suggests an ersatz Chinese folk dance performed in clomping work boots. Sketches of Pain should appeal to any fans of instrumental jazz-rock with a wild and crazy streak -- even those casually indifferent to species aside from their own, those who see photos of unfortunate bulls and think only of shouting "Olé!" [The album was also made available as part of the box set The CK Theory, combining four CDs from Off Records' P.V. Presents series.]