In 2017, former Sun City Girls bassist/vocalist Alan Bishop decided he'd had enough of America's bullshit and moved to Cairo, Egypt, after years of splitting his time between that northern African nation and Seattle.
The move makes sense. For one, he can smoke cigarettes wherever he wants in Cairo... perhaps even in pyramids. Do not underestimate the importance of this vice to the man who records under the Alvarius B. alias. It may be the key to his perverse creativity. For two, he's found musical conspirators who help him manifest his vision(s) with utmost sympathy in his fanciful rock group the Invisible Hands: Cherif El-Masri, Aya Hemeda, Adham Zidan, and Morgan Mikkelsen.
When Bishop is not writing wry, wistful, and weird songs for those two projects, he plays in the Dwarfs of East Agouza, an ensemble that follows in the intrepid footsteps of ethnodelic shape-shifters Sun City Girls, and he co-runs Sublime Frequencies, one of the world's keenest labels at excavating and documenting obscure, great music from countries you'll likely never visit.
Bishop has many irons in the fire, and he's chronically adding to the Mount Everest of creative destruction that he calls his discography. Alvarius B. is where he gets intimate and dons the floppy hat of the acoustic-guitar-toting troubadour. But Mr. B. rarely plays it straight. If you've followed Sun City Girls at all, you'll know that Bishop loves to twist melodies into gnarly yet alluring shapes, all the better to move you in unexpected ways.
The early Alvarius B. solo releases bear similarities to ultimate folk outsider Jandek and psych loner Syd Barrett, albeit with deeper knowledge of global music. These recordings typically feature loads of brief songs that can come off as rough sketches, but their evanescent nature and scattershot, unusual ideas compel repeat listens.
In 2011, though, Alvarius B. dropped his "pop" LP, Baroque Primitiva. Stranger Genius Eyvind Kang fleshed out Bishop's spindly, quicksilver melodies with viola, bass, drums, and piano, and AB showed he could sing with surprisingly dulcet smoothness. Bishop's obsessive love of soundtrack genius Ennio Morricone burgeons here, as does his worship of John Barry's "You Only Live Twice" and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Sometimes iconoclasts wanna polish icons.
In 2017, Alvarius B. poured years' worth of brainstorming into the three-volume With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven. Tapping members of his Egyptian bands, as well as players from Seattle's Master Musicians of Bukkake, Bishop created his masterpiece. Over its sprawling length, he proves that his delicate, burnished psych-folk songs deserve canonical status. Covers of Lee Hazlewood's "Dark in My Heart" and Johnny Cash's "Wanted Man" further sharpen the album's glorious despondency and earned cynicism via Bishop's revised lyrics.
The Invisible Hands represent the most straightforward rock endeavor of Bishop's 35-year career. After you've gone out on so many craggy limbs in various bands and collaborative formations, writing melodious songs with poetic—if cryptic—lyrics might be the most radical move you can make. Their self-titled 2013 album and 2014's Teslam contain many college- radio-friendly tracks that sound like hits in some alternative universe where talent trumps music-biz connections. Seriously, check the effervescent, orchestral-pop earworm of "Soma" and wonder why it never charted.
Clearly, the move to Egypt has benefited Bishop's muse... if not his lungs. "I see so many things and situations every day [in Egypt] that I've never seen before," Bishop told me in a 2016 interview that appeared in the Wire. "I thrive in a chaotic environment, which makes me calm. When I come [to the US], it's so obedient and calm and quiet, it makes me chaotic."