Well, have you got any better ideas? The Golden Palominos started as a gnarly avant-funk-punk band, very much part of the NY downtown, and their eponymous first album was bespattered by the somewhat in-yo-face talents of Arto Lindsay on scratchy guitar and yowling vocals plus John Zorn on demented sub-aqua duck calls. There was a lot of fine playing going on (not just from Lindsay and Zorn but also from Anton Fier, the bandleader, on ferocious drums, Bill Laswell on bass, Fred Frith on guitar, Christian Marclay on turntables) but on the strength of that album, this was a band that could always be assured of an audience inside the greater Manhattan area. The one clue to Fier's ambition was that this was already an all-star band.
'Visions of Excess', therefore, came not quite out of the blue. I don't know how he did it, but Fier enlisted exactly the right cast of players and singers for the follow-up. Richard Thompson dropped in to lend some of his sharpest guitar to various tracks. Jody Harris and Nicky Skopelitis add extra texture. Funkadelic's Mike Hampton does some fantastic stunt-metal guitar, and Henry Kaiser adds an unforgettably insane solo to a cover of a Moby Grape song. And that's just the guitar players. Vocally, the crew are spot-on; Michael Stipe, who was then only on the third REM album but already an alternative star, sings two originals and the Moby Grape song; Jack Bruce gives 'Silver Bullet' fantastic Scottish soul; John Lydon makes Robert Kidney's 'The Animal Speaks' entirely his own, but the real discovery was Syd Straw, whose multi-overdubbed vocal textures make '(Kind of) True' and 'Buenos Aires' into feasts for the ears.
And yet, that'd be all very well, but if the songs weren't any good it would all have been a waste of time. This is no festival of superstar avant-garderie; the songs are brilliant. (OK, with one exception.) This sounds like a real band. There is a genuine sense of it all adding up to more than the sum of its parts; who would have thought that Stipe's voice and Thompson's guitar would complement each other so well? And yet 'Boy (Go)' has a sense of Western spaciousness about it that other bands have tried and failed to capture. 'Clustering Train' is a metal juggernaut that combines muscle and mystery equally. Straw's songs are gorgeous, 'Silver Bullet' is another Western movie (a horse opera, this time, directed by Anthony Mann) condensed into five minutes. Of the cover versions, both can be said to do more than justice to the originals. Moby Grape's 'Omaha' is taut, tinny and wired; the Golden Palominos' 'Omaha' is vicious, scary and overwhelming. Robert Kidney's 'The Animal Speaks' was originally recorded by his legendary Akron combo The Numbers Band (15-60-75) in 1970, and the original is a brilliant, low-riding, brass-heavy slab of art-funk. The Golden Palominos' version is brawling, furious and almost-but-not-quite chaotic, driven by masses of shrieking guitars and Lydon's extraordinary wailing voice - the best thing I can say about it is that Lydon manages to make it seem like he'd written it himself.
The only dodgy track is the last one: Arto Lindsay's 'Only One Party' feels like an uneasy compromise between the first album's downtown sensibility and this album's intuitive sense of songcraft. It's maybe my favourite album of the 80s, even if I didn't like anything else this band subsequently did nearly so well. I revere Thompson, Laswell, Skopelitis, Kaiser, Hampton, Fier and in-house keyboardist Bernie Worrell as players, and Stipe, Bruce, Straw and Lydon as singers, and some fugitive magic happened when they came together (however tangentially) to make 'Visions of Excess'. For a product of the New York downtown, it's profoundly mysterious. For a piece of pure Americana, it's bracingly avant-garde. It unites REM fans and free improvisers. Check it out - if you've never heard it, you are in for a treat.