Death Whistles, Wizards, and Gongs: The Music of John McKusick

Sun Ra taught us that music, if played right, could be a form of transportation. He flew through the universe by way of music. John McKusick appears to understand this as well, but he is traveling through the multiverse instead.

He has been a constant contributor to the Lowell and Boston scenes since the mid 90s, possessing a proven versatility with past projects such as Band Without Hands, Circle Burp, and Hypocycloid among many others, many of which would be integral players in Lowell’s punk and experimental scenes in the 90s. In 2019 he connected with Psychic Dog‘s Dug McCormack to form Square Ape, releasing their impressive debut Process in March 2020. During the COVID lockdown meanwhile, John would take the time time to focus on more personal projects; Death is The Dream, Blissful Wizard and a collaboration with Andres Fortunato of the band Chimbe from Buenos Aires, Argentina called Zotzilaha.

What makes John McKusick’s music special is the way in which he finds ways to craft new sounds, mixing traditional and at times ancient instruments with modern electronics. His knowledge of sound and instrumentation allows him to pull brand new noise from what may at first seem like a limited musical palette. A perfect example of which can be found in his one off recording Gongripper. Here McKusick derives a myriad of textures and soundscapes from little more than a set of gongs and various pedals.

Death is The Dream may be his most prolific persona, having put out nine different recordings since 2019, three of which were released in 2021; beginning with the January release Old Masters of the Crossroads, a collection of nine recordings he made during 2020. Each track is it’s own separate journey, utilizing various sounds and instruments to create a feeling of loneliness and solitude. It’s a record about finding unending worlds of infinite possibility within one’s self. A stand out track on this one is “Nothing Seems Real”, a perfectly titled ambient piece filled with paranoia and uncertainty. This segues into the dark and dreary “Topeng Monyet”, which feels like a curtain has been opened and the man behind it is not the old foolish con man of Oz, but rather a dark twisted version of yourself. This darkness eventually gives way to calmness as you float downstream with “Medowsweet.” “Dream Sequence” meanwhile, is a fun dance with an unseen world, while the final track “The Oracle” is filled with hope and optimism. A promise that everything will be better and all that has frightened you or caused you pain will be washed away when the last great secret is revealed. 

Blues for Anubis is a collection of six live improvisations performed in the John’s music studio (Nicknamed “The Hashram”) in early 2021. Here, John incorporates a bewildering variety of outsider percussions. Pans, crystal bowls, death whistles, and all manner of gongs, all coalescing underneath a Boss RC 505 Loopstation. I have little idea what most of that is, but the end result is a meditative trance of the highest degree, filled with sounds that carry you and demand the submission of your third eye. It’s a journey to swampy mists, mountain temples, and wastelands of smoke and rock; and things only get weirder from here. 

Monstrosities Unending is the most recent release by Death is The Dream, described as a dawn chorus of gongs and death whistles. It is a single track over 13 minutes long, and so far my favorite of all his recent releases. The track is a landscape painting of a forbidden world beyond darkness that is far beyond haunting: its fucking terrifying. I dare anyone to listen to this alone in the dark; the eldritch sounds of the gongs jolt your flight or fight instincts while the blood burning screams from the death whistles paralyze you with fear. It’s a piece that works in the same way as H.P. Lovecraft’s writing does, which is to say it speaks to something hidden deep inside us all. The knowledge that there is something much older and darker in this world with us. You will fear for your soul for having heard it. Like a fly in a web you can do nothing to prevent what is coming for you. 

John’s last release as Blissful Wizard was back in August 2020 perfectly titled, “The Summer Did Not Love Me Back”. John describes Blissful Wizard as Death is The Dream without the darkness, death whistles, and Black Magick. For the most part this is an accurate description. He has the same deep experimentation going on, but in a funner friendlier way. Here he uses audio samples as an additional instrument and a danceable yet smooth beat to carry you through. My favorite track is the final one. This is a great example of the Ying Yang aspect of John. Much like how the dark Death is the Dream recording “Old Masters of The Crossroads” ended with the hope inducing song “The Oracle”, this rather pleasant recording ends with the frantic threatening track “The Wizard is Gonna Getcha”. This song certainly does create a feeling that something is coming for you. I suggest not running from the wizard, but instead surrendering to him. John is a wizard that has so many worlds to show you. This song has an interesting ending that sort of rises from the frantic chase and takes hold of you. There is a touch of a John Carpenter influence here as well. 

John shows no sign of slowing down. He will be releasing a new Blissful Wizard recording on Vaporwave/Shoegaze vinyl soon, which will feature Gong’s and Crystal bowls. He will be performing live as Blissful Wizard at Wild at Heart in Ayer Saturday July 24th at 5PM.