Gary Smith / Silvia Kastel / Ninni Morgia
ITALY ULTRAMARINE RECORDS UMO12 LP (2012)
Articulated by a trio of seasoned musical linguists who view every living moment as a virginal entity, Brand stands as a concise study of a full and fascinating musical language. This recording has already earned eloquent accolades from respectable quarters for its idiosyncratic structure, astonishing internal consistency and bat-shit crazy syntax. If its most striking feature is its sleeve, it’s because the musicians ooze, not boom into view like the cover’s majestic moon shot. Viewed from afar, one’s impression of the music may be of a similarly distant and alien body, but real-time playback reveals an audio analogue of the craggy and cratered lunar surfaces displayed on front and rear. The mood is deepened by blurry recording fidelity, from which issues an otherworldly whiff of ‘Le Voyage Dans Le Lune’ as if soundtracked by Derek Bailey and Edgard Varèse.
Cue Smith, Kastel and Morgia, weighing in with skills and sound reserves hewn and honed over years of peripatetic performance and collaboration. Though confined to a relatively little instrumentation, each exhibits a resourcefulness and imagination that ought to put music shops out of business. Gary Smith sits with amp, volume pedal and an extensive array of extended techniques that transports his guitar work at times into the abstract realm of musique concrète, as he jumps, jangles and provides itchy berth for his counterpart, Morgia, who shape-shifts symbiotically from ‘electronic textures’ into ‘pre-war slide blues’ and oscillating feedback; motifs so (wilfully) tentative that they suggest would-be interlopers from beyond the veil of the known. His playing is a blanket or a bludgeon for Smith’s taps and tinkles, and backdrops beautifully the group’s ornamented theatrics.
Largely absent for the first few tracks, but for a faint feline fricative in the first minutes, vocalist Silvia Kastel yawns into elongated view in ‘Allied Forces’, then proceeds to navigate the vacillating void with a cat’s heightened perception; ascending tall, yowling towers; contorting herself bonelessly around strange-shapes with apposite meows, scowls, howls, shrieks and ululations. Trained in a range of styles, she negotiates the slippery antics of the string section with grace and aplomb. Vocals in improvised music usually constitute the make or break factor for me, because potential for discomfort engendered by the overwrought looms so large. However, Kastel’s sense of restraint is as evolved as her vocal versatility.
An additional portent of the trio’s intuitive powers is the judicious brevity of each track, demonstrating a determination not to waste or belabour a single idea, leaving every Goldilocks listener to enjoy ‘baby bear’ cuts exclusively. It throws into sharp relief the difference between chancer musicians who let it all hang out, and those with something to flaunt. Brand falls into the latter camp, teasing you just enough to follow the trio into ‘Brand 2’.