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Whirled Music

Old Time Relijun puts a new spin on ancient sounds.

I've had a pretty hectic day," says Arrington de Dionyso from Olympia, Washington, the state's tiny capital and the headquarters of K Records, the venerable indie label that de Dionyso's band, Old Time Relijun, calls home. "A bag that contains a passport and all of my jaw harps was stolen out of my car at a wedding that I was at this weekend. I've been in the middle of moving, so it actually took me a little time to realize that stuff was missing. I had to spend the whole day up in Seattle at the Federal Building showing them my plane tickets and getting my passport pictures retaken so I could go play in Sweden on Saturday."

Whoever stole his passport may have noticed that the thing was still warm. De Dionyso just got back to the U.S. from Argentina; before that, he was probably trekking across Malaysia or Lapland, swapping songs with the natives and searching for some apocryphal Pangaea whence sprang all the music of the world. You see, Old Time Relijun -- Aaron Hartman on bass, Phil Elvrum on drums and de Dionyso on guitar and vocals -- plays world music. But we're not talking hippie crap or something Paul Simon might wipe his dick on. This is music that expands and contracts like the earth's crust itself, nature and humanity incarnate, a primordial force that reaches across races, centuries and hemispheres.

"The very first drummer of Old Time Relijun, Bryce Panic, moved down to Buenos Aires to be with his new wife, who is from there," says de Dionyso of his recent expedition to Argentina. "My daughter Lucinda and I went down for a month and were hanging out, taking buses all over the city, going to museums and getting her some Spanish lessons. We did a little bit of recording for an upcoming project that probably won't be ready for months and months.

Religious experience: Phil Elvrum (from left), Aaron 
Hartman and Arrington de Dionyso are Old Time 
Relijun.
Religious experience: Phil Elvrum (from left), Aaron Hartman and Arrington de Dionyso are Old Time Relijun.

"Oh, and we played a show, too," he remembers suddenly. "It was Bryce on drums and me on bass clarinet. It was in this weird cafe that had all these pictures of the Beatles up all over the place. There were actually a lot of kids at the show, which surprised me. People were pretty enthusiastic about the kind of noisy, free-jazz stuff that we were playing."

Jazz is indeed a guiding light in de Dionyso's musical firmament. His debut solo album, Smooth Jazz Vagina, was unveiled last year under the name Abraxasaxophonic. Released by the Denver label NGWTT -- owned by local noise terrorists Friends Forever -- the disc ingests chunks of blaring, Albert Ayler-style improv and then throws them up all over crappy dentist's-office jazz taped off the radio. As its creator says, "It's kind of a move toward reinventing the way we think about jazz and hear jazz. Jazz has roots very deep in Africa, in ritual, in blues, in the expression of emotion and transformation. I wanted to recontextualize the smooth jazz that is in many ways a mutant form of jazz. I wanted to reintroduce that primitive otherness and kind of make a real bloody mix with that juxtaposition."

As indebted to tradition as the band is, it would probably be easier to list all the styles of music that Old Time Relijun doesn'tincorporate into its songs. For instance, there's no rap. But come to think of it, de Dionyso's mystic sing-speak and organic cadences call to mind hip-hop forefathers the Last Poets. Neither is there much punk rock -- and yet the abrasiveness and synapse-tangling kinesis of his riffs could belong to both the Birthday Party and D.N.A.

But even while hinting at certain influences, Old Time Relijun appears to be less a bunch of revivalists and more a contemporary incarnation of some aboriginal, mythic archetype of a rock band. Formed in 1995, the group has released six albums that pound like prehistoric pulses, almost tribal in their repetition and savage beauty. The trio's new disc, Lost Light, is a hazy dream state of lust, fear and compulsion welling up from the unconscious, rife with visions of boiling hearts, bacchanalian revelry and vampire bites. The result is trance-like music rooted in a dark, collective zeitgeist that transcends the modern sicknesses of pop and technology.

"My main musical education was listening to old Smithsonian Folkways records at the Spokane Public Library as I was growing up," remembers de Dionyso, a self-confessed amateur ethno-musicologist. "I'd go downtown to the library every weekend and put as many records as I could carry in my backpack and bring them home. We're talking everything from Native American chants to Ravi Shankar to Indonesian gamelan to blues to jazz. Even a little bit of rock and roll here and there. And then I also used to hang out with street musicians starting when I was about fourteen. I had my first acoustic guitar, and there was this fellow who had me under his tutelage. He was my professor -- this wild, old, hairy man who sang songs on the street."

Accordingly, de Dionyso began his music career in 1993 busking on the sidewalks of Spokane before moving to Olympia to attend Evergreen State College. It was there that the trio came together and began recording rudimentary four-track tapes; one of its earliest "hits" was the song "Earthquake" (now available on 2003's Varieties of Religious Experience anthology), in which the singer intones, "There is an earthquake coming to town/Railroads and highways and bridges will split/Sinking and killing people/Snakes and birds and cats will warn us one week in advance/By acting stupid and speaking our language."

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