I’ve enjoyed the amped-up rock guitar complexity of Ben Chasny on the fairly recent Hexadic album, and within the trio Rangda where he manages to emerge unscathed from stringed duetting with the formidable Rick Bishop…in guitar terms, the musical equivalent of slugging it out with Hemmingway. Burning The Threshold (DRAG CITY DC 664), Chasny’s latest release as Six Organs Of Admittance sees him going back to acoustic guitars, melodies, songs, and regular rhythms, a direction which could be regarded as a return to his “roots” ever since he released those early mystical-exotic acoustic guitar drone albums. He’s joined by a number of skilled cohorts, namely keyboardist Cooper Crain, the drummer Chris Corsano (also from Rangda), Damon & Naomi, Ryley Walker, Haley Fohr, and others. There is much to admire in the assured finger-picking intricacies of Chasny, and he plays with conviction throughout; for those, myself included, who enjoy his dabblements with esoterica and mystery, the opaque lyrics will do much to satisfy your leanings – especially on the title track, which could be read as a compacted lecture on the practice of alchemy, delivered in under five minutes. Now that I listen harder, it’s his eerie disembodied singing voice that conveys much of that sense of ancient mystery and wonder, especially when overdubbed with unexpected harmonies. On the other hand, if you want Leo Kottke-flavoured American folk tunes taken at a brisk tilt, then tunes such as ‘St Eustace’ and ‘Around The Axis’ (where he duets with Ryley Walker and the sparks fly like June bugs) will be your bag of herbal tea. A refreshing set of impeccable, crystal-clear performances and sparkling up-front recordings. From 11 January 2017.
More avant music from Canada in the form of Éric Normand and his Mattempa (TOUR DE BRAS TDB9018CD) album. We have heard Éric playing free improv with Philippe Lauzier on a 2015 album packaged in vinegar and brown paper. Here, Normand is joined by a small ensemble of players including Lauzier again on the woodwinds, plus Raphael Arsenault (violin), Antoine Letourneau-Berger (percussion), and Alexandre Robichaud on the pocket trumpet. The combinations of long tones from strings, brass and woodwinds produce thrilling effects, while the percussion and bass-guitar scrapes of Normand serve to add moments of punctuation and texture.
Normand and the crew are attempting something quite deep and philosophical with this strange music…the idea comes to us from the writings of Jacques Ferron, noted physician and fiction writer, and his book Gaspé Mattempa. The protagonist in this fantasy work is a strange mythical creature who is brought into being by acoustical sounds, such as the wind rustling the trees on the mountainside. It’s far from clear if he’s a force for good or evil, but he is related to Baron Samedi in some way, and one track pays homage to that famous Haitian voodoo figure. I would like to think of Gaspé Mattempa of being akin to that gigantic “elemental” creature that springs up in the Hellboy And The Golden Army movie, but I expect that fanciful whimsy is wide of the mark.
Éric Normand’s plan is to use this imaginative fiction to inspire these episodes of improvised music, which may or may not be realised in a semi-directed fashion. Accordingly there is a vague narrative layout to the progression of the album, and an equally vague cinematic feel to the slow-moving droney music. The ambiguity of Gaspé Mattempa’s intentions – what does he want from us? – remains largely intact thus, and it’s easy to read these breathy sonorities from the players as depicting the mysterious noises of this tree-mountain-water monster. Good sounds, performed with conviction, but still bogged down with a rather dreary sense of earnestness. From 24 January 2017.
Last heard from Frank Hurricane when he appeared as Hurricanes Of Love on the Quintorian Blues double LP, a solo effort which impressed us with its zeal for life, but underwhelmed us with its acoustic guitar wizardry. Today’s record Mountain Brew Light (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR256) contains ten short songs from the mouth and brain of this bearded American, everything sung in a bucolic woozy style, and he’s joined by Tha Spiritual Band who contribute vocal additions and freakoid musical backdrops, sometimes played on odd instruments such as the shofar, hunting horn, and tuba. I can dig the stoned vibes, the freedom-embracing mountain-loving lifestyle that emanates from this benevolent fellow…but on this outing the actual songs are still quite pedestrian and ordinary. If it weren’t for Frank’s cracked and tuneless wailing, this wouldn’t be much more than a late Jerry Garcia solo album. Themes of spirits, spirituality and ghosts crop up a lot in the lyrics (see the printed insert) along with much colourful imagery; and then there’s the completely addled cover painting by Turner Williams, which promises a lot more in the way of frazzled rural thrills than the LP actually delivers. Not a massively unpleasant listen, and the record generates a highly positive upbeat mood; but the psychedelic details are used far too sparingly, and I wish Frank would learn to write a decent original tune instead of plodding his way around these over-familiar chord changes. From 15 November 2016.
On this vinyl LP by Neuköllner Modelle we have a lengthy session of free-jazz-improvised music played by the trio Bertrand Denzler, Joel Grip, and Sven-Åke Johansson. One thing to mention about Sektion 1-2 (UMLAUT RECORDS umlp03) is that it was actually recorded in Neukölln, a Berlin district known and loved by us Bowie / Eno fans since the Heroes LP, and a piece of music which happened to feature a memorable saxophone blast from Bowie. It’s also referenced in the liner notes written by Bastian Zimmermann, evidently a fellow who’s a cognoscenti of modern cafe society in today’s German bustling environs, and who contextualises the performance in an oblique manner with his penmanship. He’d like us to know that Neukölln has moved on since 1977 when the Bowie-Eno angstified view of the neighbourhood was published. “Every religious group is represented here,” he tells us. He also describes the Sowieso club where this record was made, with its unusual stage setup and choice of alcoholic beverages. So far it sounds like certain hipster zones of London, such as Dalston or Hackney, but probably less forced and self-conscious.
French saxman (great improviser and composer/conceptualist) Denzler has been puffing his tenor around these parts for some years now, most recently on Le Ring with Gerbal and Dörner…I’ve got to admire his restrained work on this recording, mainly because I like the short repeated phrases he keeps giving out. At key moments, you’ll get stuck in a delicious music loop with these simple statements of his. I’m convinced it means more than it appears to, especially if you think of more forthright 1970s improvisers who felt as though nothing short of 45 minutes of continual invention would do, never allowing a single repeat of anything if possible. Here of course it’s the same but not the same, the repetitions changing as they advance along, always framed and reframed by the very elastic context of the rhythm section. Some of this is down to the superbly flexible bass work of Joel Grip, but a lot of it is down to veteran drumster Johansson, who delineates one of the most open-ended percussion frameworks that an improvising musician could hope for. He also does it doe a long time – the whole record is over 52 mins long. And it’s quite understated, like the whole record in fact; energy is implied, for sure, but there’s none of your explosive roaring free jazz squonking afoot here. The dead-on accuracy of Johansson’s beats is uncanny, if we can use the word accuracy when trying to describe such a free-form, nebulous, pattern of activity.
Johansson is a long-serving hero of free improvisation and free jazz, first appearing on the FMP label in 1972, much to Sweden’s credit; he’s played with most of the greats of Europe, but to my shame I don’t appear to have collected or heard much of his back catalogue. Speaking of FMP, the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach teamed up with this trio in 2017 and the foursome created Sektion 3-7, a double CD set which hopefully continues the grooves and themes laid down on this platter. I’m still trying to come to terms with the achievement of Sektion 1-2, running it mentally against certain templates in my brain; the New York Art Quartet from 1965 on ESP-Disk is one touchstone, with a similar constrained power and acoustic brittleness, but today’s record also has the slippery lines of certain Albert Ayler records, yet without feeling the need to overstate, overblow, or otherwise belt out histrionic excess. This may say something about the European temperament of the players and their Protestant roots. But this isn’t a cold, unfeeling record, and it still transports us from one place to another in its laid-back, close-lipped style. From 4th November 2016.
Last heard from Earth Tongues in 2016 with their mighty set Rune…here they are again on Neither/Nor Records with an even more extended double CD set called Ohio (n/n 006), recorded on a single day in July 2015, and 93 minutes pass like nothing when you sit down to let this slow-moving, ponderous ambient-improv engulf you. The trio here are once again Joe Moffett, with his trumpet and cassette machine, Dan Peck with his tuba, and the percussionist Carlo Costa. Their aim is to push themselves and the audience as far as possible down a route of endurance, of extended tones, lengthy explorations, and strange near-silent passages…
“Scope and scale” are their watchwords, as if they used to be fine art sculptors making monumental statues 18 feet high, and have now decided to think even bigger, carving out chunks of earth, chipping at the side of a mountain, or repurposing entire urban landscapes such as highway constructions into enormous works of art. “Dynamic and temporal extremes” are also guiding strategies, referring I suppose to the interplay of the musicians and the duration of the work, both elements worth considering…unlike the type of improvisation which is played at top speed, Earth Tongues make their best effort to retard their normal instincts and play everything at this painfully slow pace, as if they were frozen Neanderthals slowly thawing out and coming back to life…in so doing they don’t deny interplay with each other, but rather they emphatically call attention to it, placing it under the spotlight on a totally bare stage, where there’s no room to hide and no chance to allow fluffed notes or careless ideas.
Only the strong survive under these competitive, Darwinian rules, but it pays off when players as skilled and bold as these are involved. As to the “temporal extremes”, the listener also becomes painfully aware of each passing moment as they listen to this inexorably slow and minimal heaving music, yet it’s so compelling that the entire set seems to vanish past you in no time at all (see prior remark). That’s kind of disruptive, in a good way, of normal experience; I sense it’s something that some modernist composers would give their right hand to achieve, and they can only get close to it through expending bags of effort and intellectual ponderings, ending up with dense notation and abstruse compositions…where Earth Tongues can evidently do it through improvised performance alone (which isn’t to imply that it’s effortless).
The “stark” setting of this work also means that the players have nothing to conceal, no tricks up their sleeve, no cloaking “bad” playing behind a bank of effects pedals, and most of the unusual sounds are generated by purely acoustic means. I am not sure exactly what the cassette players are doing, but I think their role is minimal, and most of what you will hear is the low growls of Peck’s tuba, the astringent and severe shrieks from Moffett’s top register, and the metallic zings of Costa bowing his cymbals to produce acidic sensations in the listener’s mouth. A pared-down, no-nonsense world is what they delineate, almost primitive in its simplicity, but unfailingly direct and honest. A truly “epic” double album…from 7th November 2016.
The Carp’s Head (MONOTYPE RECORDS MONOLP018) record is an extremely unusual album featuring the vocal talents of Ghédalia Tazartès, the unclassifiable mystic from France who has been coming our way a fair number of times in recent years…his tape collages, like the LP Repas Froid, are one thing – nightmarish reconstructions of the physical world and all that’s in it – but when he opens his mouth, strange creatures emerge by the bushel. We’ve heard him singing on Superdisque (with Jac Berrocal and David Fenech) and as one half of Reines D’Angleterre, and it’s not an experience that you can soon forget.
On Carp’s Head, he does a lot of guttural throat-singing type stuff that I assume is extremely hard to do, and makes Ghédalia Tazartès sound like some shaman taking off on a magical flight, or an old man of the mountains uttering prophesies. But he also makes sound effects and animal interpretations, such as on the self-explanatory ‘Wolves And Birds’, where he not only provides the voices of these ravenous beasts but also supplies the background sound of wind on the Russian steppes, and thus single-handedly creates his own atmospheric soundtrack for a radio play that has no story.
He’s doing it with the help of two Polish musicians, most notably the multi-instrumentalist Paweł Romańczuk, who seems to have access to many exotic-sounding devices that conjure up the spirits of non-specific ethnic recordings from everywhere in the civilised world (and beyond). Romańczuk is not known to me, but he regularly performs in the experimental combo Małe Instrumenty of which he is a founder member. Romańczuk has also built his own home-made musical instruments, and maybe some of them appear on this record. The other Polish musician is Andrzej Załeski, who I think is mostly supplying percussive devices, a music curator who is known for his numerous musical collaborations, his cinema work, and performances in theatre groups.
Carp’s Head has a lot to recommend it – the all-acoustic arrangements, the spare simplicity of the playing, the unsettling atmospheres it creates, and the all-time freakiness of Tazartès’ vocalising throughout. The players have worked hard to create something innovative and new, proud of the way they “drifted away from the traditions of chamber music”. From 21 November 2017.
Repetitions Of The Old City – I (NO LABEL) is the fifth album from Jack O’ The Clock, the unique American band led by Daimon Waitkus. We previously heard All My Friends followed by Night Loops, both of which prompted rapturous prose from this listener and a tendency to liken Waitkus to many American mavericks in the fields of pop music, poetry, and classical composition. Based on today’s spin I see no need to rescind any previous observations.
Other hallmarks of excellence stand out in this selection of nine highly unusual songs. There’s the contributions of the other players, especially the violin and viola of Emily Packard, and the woodwinds of Kate McLoughlin, which do much to add to the exotic old-time flavour of these highly contrived rustic gems (Waitkus assembles his songs as if following a blueprint for making Shaker furniture). Packard’s violin has no trouble following the impossible time signatures of these elaborate compositions; her instrument simply dances, floats in the sky. Waitkus’s songs are ingenious with their unexpected chord sequences and clashing tonalities, and the very inventive melodies whose intervals shouldn’t really work at all, yet they work perfectly. To say nothing of the abstruse and erudite lyrics, with their multi-syllabic thoughts packed into singable melodies. I also see Waitkus is quite the octopus when it comes to playing several instruments – guitar, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, pianet, guzheng and flute are all in his credit roster, making him a match for Alan Sondheim (who made Ritual-All-7-70 for ESP-Disk in 1967). I think Waitkus and Sondheim should get into a gun-fighting showdown someday over instrumental prowess, but Waitkus would probably win on points with his song-writing gifts.
The other observation that occurs to me today is that Jack O’ The Clock (although they are as American as 100 Apple Pies) are not that far apart from classic English prog rock of the 1970s which I love so much, especially Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, a band whose eccentricity, mannered vocals and skilful arrangements feel very much of apiece with the music of Damon Waitkus. The acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Mike Rutherford and his 12-string, and there are even flute solos, like on ‘Firth Of Fifth’…I rest my case. High recommendation for this peculiar strain of art rock. As far as I know Jack O’ The Clock are still not signed to a label and do self-releases of everything. This one is so wilfully obscure they don’t even put their name on the front or back cover. From 11 November 2016.
Very good acoustic improv trio work from Bertrand Denzler, Antonin Gerbal and Axel Dörner on Le Ring (CONFRONT CCS 65). The players are keen to point out their rapport has been hard-earned, and that this particular configuration represents years of work getting to know each other through means of brass, mallets, and perspiration. “Dörner and Denzler know each other for 15 years”, states the press note, while Dörner and Gerbal have been at it since 2011. Meanwhile Denzler and Gerbal, the French part of the act, have often played as a duo and appeared in many other projects, for example the record Heretofore which came out on this same label in 2015. Le Ring could I suppose refer to the tight inner circle which binds improvisers together, whether it’s the social milieu of concerts and touring, or the act of playing together which is (I would hope) not unlike creating a magic circle as used by John Dee, Simon Magus, or other well-known sorcerers. There’s also a “circle of life” thing implied in such a title, the slow rhythms of the artistic life, and the fact that these three players have been embroiled in the churn of playing together for so long means they are now as inter-twined as your clothes when they fall out of the tumble drier.
Not too long ago my life was ruined by hearing Sound Of Drums, the solo record by Antonin Gerbal which was so single-minded in its pursuit of a pure beat that you could have used it to construct a Roman road across Chichester. Fortunately he seems to have brought his fanatical approach down a notch or two for Le Ring, and contents himself with punctuating the general flow of the music with percussive shots inserted in unexpected places. However, when they other two give him five seconds of quiet, he’s straight back to his doomy funeral march antics, hammering out obsessive bonks and blams with the deathly precision of the grim reaper. As to Axel Dörner, I used to characterise this German trumpeter as one of the kings of the Berlin Reductionist School (or whatever they’re called) and his ultra-quiet work in Phosphor was enough to bring most strong men to their knees. He’s since become much more audible and less preoccupied with calling attention to his own breath, and his instrument is now a tube for releasing escaping gas into the room with a delicious light roaring noise. These two abstract-noise extremists tend to make Denzler – who actually hits recognisable notes now and again – the “conformist” of the group, which is really saying something in this context.
While Le Ring stops and starts and reorganises itself to head down side tangents on more than one occasion, it still presents a coherent argument in one continuous 41-minute spiel, which is more than most of us can do. Long tones are explored and tested and rubbed up against each other, like two dressmakers trying it on for size as they admire the heft of certain fabrics. Eventually, someone may or may not get an outfit to wear at the end of the process, but that’s not important. Throughout these lengthy ringing soundings, the drummer Gerbal is tapping impatiently at his rims and his skins, trying to bring the meeting to order. There’s such stillness and tension in the room that it’s amazing they get anywhere, yet forward movement of a lurching sort does take place. It’s likely though that we’ll end up at the same starting point in Le Ring, having circumscribed a circular shape right there on the floor, and come away enriched with mystical knowledge thereby. From 29th September 2016.
The Ben Verdery Guitar Project On Vineyard Sound
USA ELM CITY RECORDS CD (2016)
Ben Verdery seems to pack some heavy duty credentials, being Yale University’s Associate Professor of guitar and Artistic Director of ‘The Yale Guitar Extravaganza”. The On Vineyard Sound disc was initiated by Mr. V. who invited a number of Yale School of Music composer colleagues to write pieces for him to interpret via an extended family of guitars: ranging from Fender Strat and Steel String to Baritone and Classical.
Well…sixty-nine words in, a bright ‘n’ breezy opening presents itself with no suggestion of listener dissent… until now that is… A mere five minutes of less than intense research finds the accompanying cribsheet surprisingly failing to mention his tenure with those avatars of new age muzak: Windham Hill, when he recorded under the name of Benjamin Verdery. Can this terrible (but self-induced) stain on one’s character ever be erased by a slight name change and the passage of time? Not an ice-cube’s…
While glimpses of world music, analogue tweaking and country (David Lang’s “Little Eye”), can raise the listenability of these classical guitar recitations a micron or two, on the whole this particular cold collation is as well-manned and genteel as a gathering of maiden aunts at a fifties’ Lyons tea-house, hosted by Athene Sayler and Dame May Whitty. If this has wetted your appetite for the real soul of guitar soli, where intimations of guitarists whose somewhat haphazard lives deeply permeate the very strings and frets of their best friend, it would be better to explore the catalogue of, say, the Tompkins Square label (see Basho protégé Richard Osborn and/or Harry Taussg for starters?) than kicking yr. heels in this vicinity.
We’ve been enjoying the playing of Portuguese viola player João Camões for many years now, mostly heard through his work with the undersung Algerian synth player Jean-Marc Foussat, but his appearance in the trio earnear was also worthy of mention. Today’s offering is all-acoustic however, and the five-piece Nuova Camerata perform pretty much as a classical string quartet, with the addition of a marimba. Besides Camões with his hard-working instrument, there’s the violin of Carlos Zingaro, who may just be the veteran of the group – he’s been improvising since the early 1990s, and in fact there’s an early-ish record from 1988 which he made with the great Richard Teitelbaum which I’d love to hear. Zingaro has appeared on some big labels (FMP, Hatology, For4Ears) and worked with some big names – Evan Parker, Joëlle Léandre, and Paul Lovens. The cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff is German-born, but he’s made his home in Portugal now, and played with many local musicians including the Lisbon Improvisation Players. There’s also Pedro Carneiro, classically trained marimba player, who once made the gaffe of releasing a record with the unfortunate title of Crazy Mallets, and the bass player Miguel Leiria Pereira, a sometime member of Variable Geometry Orchestra.
The group’s debut record Chant (IMPROVISING BEINGS ib50) arrives as seven separate improvisations, simply titled Chant I-VII; it reflects their shared interest in free improvisation as well as “contemporary erudite music”, as they would have it. What this means is a vaguely solemn tone to the day’s listen, and a slightly cold and slightly stiff way of playing, which doesn’t appear to have much of a jazz feel behind it, and suggests the players are more likely to get their kicks from a dissonant evening of Schoenberg and Alban Berg than from Mingus or Ornette. But this comparative lack of warmth is more than compensated by the assurance and precision of the playing – each dissonant collision is delivered with confidence and bravado, and the music does not want for drama and incident. There’s also a certain amount of “acoustic noise” in the mix for those of you listeners who can’t help hearing a little bit of Merzbow in everything; by “noise”, I mean the high-pitched whines of the violin and viola when they suddenly swoop up into the stratosphere, the rattling low scrapes from the double bass, and the vaguely percussive attacks that result from desiccated vulture-like claws clutching at wood and strings in a predatory fashion.
When you experience all of these elements swirling together in the high-quality recording stream that’s been pressed onto this disc, you’ll certainly be glad you checked in to this Nuova Camerata. While at times it feels like Carneiro is slightly out of step with the team with his stilted marimba playing, he does provide an interesting spine to the music, and an additional musical flavour without which the record might start to appear samey. When the other players run up and down their scales in a crazy free-form fashion, he will be there making a sympathetic scuttling sound like a large centipede running over the rocks. Lastly, note the cover photo; usually when I write about acoustic stringed music I dig out my well-worn metaphor of bare twigs and branches, but this time the visuals are already doing it for me. Very good!. From 18th October 2016.
14th June update: a correction received today from Pedro Carneiro.
“Thank you very much for your review and congratulations for your beautiful artwork!
“Is the only a small detail, but please allow me to clarify: the unfortunate title you mention on a very old disc of mine (Crazy Mallets) is not mine, but simply the title of one the compositions by one – so it seems in this case – unfortunate composer.
“With thanks once again, all good wishes,
“(message dictated due to shoulder injury. Apologies for typos and other possible mistakes)”