The Gangsta Rabbi, a.k.a. as The King of Jewish Punk, is the moniker of the multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, composer and producer Steve Lieberman. He was born in Brooklyn, New York to a working class Jewish family and now resides in Freeport. Perhaps more than most artists, his work needs to be understood in the full context of his life.
He has been considered an ‘outsider artist’, partly attributed to his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder which began for him at the age of just eleven. He has been releasing studio albums since 2002 and has now released over thirty, along with live albums and countless cassettes. He has shared the stage with Weezer, Andrew WK, Glassjaw, Ryan Dunn and The Misfits, but had to retire from performing in 2011 owing to having to battle an advanced form of leukaemia, returning briefly to the stage in 2016.
Last year, he was admitted into a hospice and remarkably has carried on creating, producing his most challenging works including completely covering Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (a major influence) and thrash metal versions of the British Opera, The H.M.S. Pinafore and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
This album, La Symphonie-Thrash Du Professeur Juif Rebelle, is his magnum opus, clocking in at thirty one tracks with a duration of over three hours. Apart from its remarkable length, it also sets a record for most instruments played in a symphony (eighteen!). The instruments involved cover a wide range including thrash guitar and basses, alto, tenor and bass trombones, flutes, trumpet, clarinet, euphonium and melodica as well as drums and percussion.
The first piece, L’espirit de Rebellion, sets out the album’s essential signature sound; a tsunami of sonic textures and frenetic drumming that borders on the chaotic and makes compelling listening from the outset. Although it teeters on the edge of musical chaos, it walks this tightrope effectively by retaining a melodic core throughout.
This basically fuses the essence of punk/metal spirit with the instrumental medium of classical music, and it results in abrasive yet consistently exhilarating soundscapes.
As with alternative rock bands like Sonic Youth and The Jesus & Mary Chain, who buried their melodies under layers of howling feedback, The Gangsta Rabbi’s music rewards repeated listening and this is the case with second track Mange Merde et Meurent (which translates as Eat Shit and Die!). It melds raw Stooges-style electric guitar with relentless thrash drumming and a dense wall of organic instrumentation with clarinet and trombones dominating the texture.
Third track, the amusingly titled Je Desire Une Basse Avec Un Whammy Bar, continues the riot with some rapid fire double kicks and some inventive Frank Zappa-style melodies and variations. Indeed, Zappa saw himself as a modern classical composer working in the idiom of rock music, and there are definite parallels here with Steve Lieberman. Like Zappa, Lieberman enjoys pushing the envelope, exploring the avant garde and juxtaposing unusual musical elements together.
La Carte de Recrue d’Aaron Judge and Hall’el Soixant-Trois both clock in at around eight minutes and continue the signature style with subtleties and details in the music that reward careful listening. As with his last album I reviewed, Lieberman’s work can be compared to the more challenging works of music by Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and the more outré offerings of Lou Reed. Beefheart’s album Trout Mask Replica sounds like a chaotic sprawl at first, then the order gradually reveals itself.
This tension between order and chaos, dissonance and melody and also the textural difference between raucous and soft is the fundamental dichotomy that lies at the heart of his music. These tracks notably feature his distorted lead vocals, and it’s no surprise that he approaches singing in a unique, idiosyncratic way, bringing to mind another avant garde rock artist, the late Mark E. Smith from the British group The Fall.
Le Jardin des Chiens is a ten minute epic that reaches a tumultuous climax, with some woodwinds seriously wailing against a piledriving musical backdrop. Woodwinds also dominate the following Holocauste, especially flute and clarinet and vocals emerge once again around the three minute mark. This piece flows seamlessly into Trois Petits Chiots, which almost feels like a sequel or companion piece with a similar theme.
Owing to the constraints of length, I can’t focus on every track but other highlights that stood out for me were Le Quartier Cancer #3 which is a sustained sonic hurricane that lasts nine minutes and which I perceived as an emotional expression of anger and rage at the struggle of being faced with leukaemia. This is followed by Le Professeur Juif est mort (The Gangsta Rabbi Is Dead), a title which certainly shows he has not lost his sense of humour, a testament to his fortitude and spirit.
The raging energy continues through to the end, with La Petite Jeunne Fille-Juife having one of the most distinctive melodies along with M.C.T.M.T. and the relentlessly frenetic but thrilling Mille-Neuf Cents Quatre-Vignts Et Neuf (which translates as 1989 but presumably has no link to the Taylor Swift album of the same name!) The superbly named Bonkey Sur D’an lives up to its title with a delightfully eccentric melodic theme that brings the woodwinds to the fore once again.
The final track La Chanson De Merde Vit (translating as The Shit Life Song) is a rampaging ten minute musical climax where it seems like all eighteen instruments are playing at once (probably the case). It feels like a defiant middle finger to the mortality we all share and it’s a glorious one.
Overall, this is a remarkable, challenging artistic work that blends thrash metal with avant garde classical to create music like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s the sonic equivalent of standing in a wind tunnel for three hours. To have created such an epic musical tour de force in his dire health circumstances is an example of the power of the human spirit at its finest. Hopefully, The Gangsta Rabbi, a.k.a. Steve Lieberman, will get to be fully appreciated within his lifetime.
VERDICT = 8.4 out of 10
Watch a video about the 18 instruments on the album: