Rob Mazurek/ Exploding Star Orchestra – Galactic Parables: Volume 1 (avant-jazz)
Cuneiform Records RUNE409/410 2015, DD 2x CD & 3x LP album, 2h 1m 50s
$14+ DD $23+ CD $48+ LP
‘Let it be known’, begins the declamation with which Damon Locks opens the first of these two live sets: the immense complexity of the knowing we are invited to share soon becomes apparent. I come across a huge variety of music, much of it extremely creative, inventive, accomplished and unconventional, but rarely do I encounter anything on the sheer scale of Galactic Parables: Volume 1, or anything remotely as ambitious. The performing forces at each of the concerts from which the album was recorded are large but not vast, at ten and eight players respectively, but the creative scope of the music admits few boundaries. Much of the record, notwithstanding its important spoken word and electronic elements, cleaves strongly to the paradigm of the improvising melodic soloist as the creative centre around which other elements revolve, with a rhythm section in support which, while it pushes boundaries in many senses, also continues to do exactly what a rhythm section is supposed to do in such a context. Most of the musical vocabulary is recognisable as well, ranging from the melodic to the free, but almost always clearly jazz; the improvisation ranges from the collective to the individually self-expressive, and the melodic content from the atonal to the incontrovertibly pretty. My point being that the Exploding Star Orchestra dig deep into the entirety of a tradition which has seen creative trails blazed in all directions, from ports of departure whose histories are still almost entirely within the compass of living memory.
If there is a particular strand of that tradition to which Rob Mazurek’s work can be clearly related, it’s the visceral avant-gardism of Sun Ra and his ever-changing collective of disciples; there are no standards in these sets, as there are still in the current incarnation of the Arkestra, but the sense is equally strong that the music is rooted in the whole breadth of the tradition, and that the avant-garde is in no way peripheral to that whole. This album, with its psychedelic sense of limitless extent, the abandon of its improvisations pointing ritualistically outwards toward infinity, seems to share that sense, addressing itself to the ‘big picture’ of which the tradition’s various mainstreams, including those of In A Silent Way or The Shape of Jazz To Come, offer only a fragmentary glimpse. The two sets that make up Galactic Parables: Volume 1 are performances of ostensibly the same compositions, for the most part, but they don’t constitute different versions of the same music: the first set, recorded in Sardegna, is performed by a slightly larger ensemble than the Chicago recording, and doesn’t feature Nicole Mitchell, who contributes flutes and vocals to the latter, but even had the exact same musicians been involved, the music is the sound that they made then, on that occasion. The verbal content, which to a large extent is denotationally identical on both occasions, bears repeating; indeed, its incantatory character seems to demand repetition. Each Galactic Parable that Locks declaims is numbered, giving the impression of a systematically ordered body of knowledge, or of a division of the universe’s infinite continuity into a finite set of categories, like the I-Ching or the periodic table. These units of understanding are not asemic, like those collected in the Codex Serafinianus, (a book which kept springing to mind as I listened to the album) but they are so polysemic as to call into question the systematisation of knowledge of which their numbering offers the semblance. I haven’t talked about the playing much, and it is fantastic throughout, Mazurek’s beautiful cornet work taking its place humbly beside the equally superb improvisations contributed by the rest of the ensemble, and that’s because the playing doesn’t seem to be the repository of the music’s meanings. In fact, meanings do not repose here, and we are not invited to hear these sounds as finished statements. Instead our attention is directed outward, to participate in the flows and networks of experience in which Galactic Parables: Volume 1 travels. It’s far too big for my feeble words to adequately encompass, and all I can say in conclusion is that this album is top-whack malarkey.
My Silent Wake – Damnatio Memoriae (doom)
self released 2015, DD CC & LP album, 54m 59s
£5+ DD £6 CC £15+ LP
Damnatio Memoriae swells in subtly with abrasive, granular drones, offering a glimpse of the geologic continuities explored in metal’s avant-garde, and then it hits us with a riff, which marches implacably across that bleak landscape with a rhythm like the tread of some infernal or post-apocalyptic army. Like most zones of musical practice, metal has expanded outwards confusingly in the post-millennial era, the idea of a single mainstream remaining relevant only to the most unadventurous listeners, those content to graze in the narrow, unfragmented pastures of the commercial – it’s probably a big majority, but I prefer to carry on as though it was a lunatic fringe… As such it’s not easy to characterise significant creative directions within metal, but two of the major tendencies that are actually extending and progressing the language (rather than just recycling select parts of it) are the technologic, technical, glossy, digital approach exemplified by djent, and its corollary, the dirty, hairy, ritualistic and visceral strand, which forms a continuum with the drone/noise avant-garde at its outer fringes. These are broad tendencies, not unified movements or generically determined styles, and its easy to locate My Silent Wake within the latter. The band digs deep, seeking some kind of primal, archetypal power in the psychotropic ritual of their mid-tempo thundering. For the most part their songs combine the driving, treacly riffs of the doom tradition with the kind of growling vocal delivery that originated in death metal, but which is now equally characteristic; in ‘Black Oil’ they employ the trance-like tremolo riffing of black metal, but that music’s influence is for the most part felt in the affective territory the band inhabits. Indeed, much of the music is decidedly melodic, and their chord voicings are often full and rich, not restricted to the parallel fifths that have dominated metal harmony for much of its history. But the bleak, chthonian incantations around which these songs are built are a long way from the simple-minded Judaeo-Christian devil imagery and crude sexual self-aggrandisement of early doom. Themes of effacement and erasure predominate, of bridges burnt and choices become irrevocable. Exile, ordeal and anathema are themes which seem present throughout, but which come to the surface in the epic ‘The Empty Unknown’; this song, with its unexpected echoes of Roger Waters era Pink Floyd, seems to encapsulate the creative concerns of the album as a whole. While the songs explore un-anchored, displaced and alienated subjectivities, there is a sense of deep-rootedness in the music, of something ancient, enduring and ineluctable, across which these experiences skitter like mayflies on the surface of deep water. Damnatio Memoriae takes its name from a legal practice in Classical Rome, where an individual could be anathematised, and all trace of them erased from the documentary or artistic record: on one hand, these songs dramatise that experience, empathising with the outcast, and valorising the perspective of the outsider; but on the other, they celebrate that effacement of self, and not unlike the album reviewed above, exhort their listeners to abandon themselves to a flow of experience larger, older and less knowable than their limited subjectivities. Or to put it another way, this record is as heavy as fuck, sonically, lyrically and metaphorically. It will take you to a dark place, but one that is well worth visiting.
Pigeon Breeders – Concrescence (drone)
self released 2015, DD & CC album, 32m 24s
CAD$3+ DD CAD$7+ CC
Concrescence opens like the album reviewed above, with the subtle burgeoning of drones, but if you are awaiting a riff, you will be disappointed. This is the electro-acoustic sound of an improvising trio, one which is practised in the elaboration of continuities, seemingly unwilling to slice time for the listener, or to otherwise ease their onrush through it. Instead they tug at our sleeves, like empty-eyed mendicants in a town of the underworld, offering pause, emphasising stasis, but withholding comfort or affirmation. These laminated filaments of sound are not dramatically abrasive or confrontational in character, but they are quietly unsettling, pulsations of percussion reminding the listener of what they have left undone, while the swirling tension of the semi-tonal elements reminds them that they have little time to do it in. This is slow music, and its summons is unmistakeable, but its invitation seems to be to tarry with it while the world we know fades to dust. The trio do not associate their names with specific instruments, on the cassette cover or elsewhere, but percussion and guitar are plainly the predominant voices. Prior to the concluding ‘Closure’ the guitar is not deployed as it often is in drone music, to produce saturated sheets of sound, but emits thin, washed-out swells, or clean, atonal flurries. Where hard attacks are present, as they are in the predominantly scrabbly ‘Second Inversion’, they are used to produce a sense of space, of a disorientating, cavernous environment, in which the listener wanders directionless; or in ‘Fatigue Wave’, layers of rhythm drive inexorably, but they seem to taunt the listener with their urgency, while the booming reverbs in which they swim reiterate the inertia and the oppressive scale of the vast, cold affective volume to which the album as a whole refers. To produce a bleak, sepulchral ambience is relatively easy, and can be done using purely technological means, but to produce one through improvisation is another matter entirely, and the resulting texture is one of great detail and complexity, a vision of human experience rather than a simple stimulus to it. The music emphasises sameness, while becoming continually different; repetition would be too obvious a way to represent the substance of experience, which is irreducibly particular even when it is the experience of monotony and ennui. The paradox at the heart of the album is that Pigeon Breeders are clearly not in any such affective cul-de-sac, but are completely engaged, totally present, focussed and alert, responding to one another in an interactivity as communal as the experience they represent is isolated. This is no contradiction, but the holding in tension of a binary pair, the kind of balanced opposition that we must all negotiate in multiple ways simply to lead our lives (or on a more prosaic level, to physically stand up!). And the texture of the music is not unremittingly shadowed and grim: in ‘Blue Meadow’, amid the disturbed, obsessive scraping, volumes of occlusion shift and stir, and occasionally, for a moment at a time, shafts of light pierce the gloom. It is not a question of the former offering comfort in the face of the latter, and nor does Concrescence position the two in some sort of manichaean struggle: but this music is founded on an understanding that the world is neither this nor that, and that finished, complete understandings and resolutions are chimerae, sought, but never achieved. The tense, unsettling atmospheres of this record are neither comforting nor entertaining, but as the traces of some creatively rigorous and impressively deliberate musicianship they are immersive and they are rewarding. This is a record of rare skill, and rare power.
Nils Quak – Fragmente des Verschwindens (ambient)
Sacred Phrases SP-60 2015, DD & CC album, 43m 21s
€3.90+ DD €5+ CC
These predominantly consonant, sonorous sounds are shot through with glitchy unpredictability, holding the continuity of the long tones in tension with a fragmented anti-narrative of timbral changes and the semblance of deteriorating electronic signals. Nils Quak is an aficionado of the warm chaos that lurks in the unpredictable signal paths of an analogue modular synthesiser, and a past master of the art of eliciting involving soundworlds from it. He’s a musician whose work I have often discussed, but it’s quite hard to pin him down, in terms of a journo-friendly arc of creative development, a route from ‘there’ to ‘here’. It seems easier to account for the variations in his work over time as an ongoing concern with a given set of creative problems, re-visited as required, when each affords some unexplored meaning. As far as I know this music is entirely derived from the circuits of a modular synth, but there is a rich variety to it, both in terms of the character of the sounds, and in their affective impact. The sounds in question are a combination of continuous (though mutating) tones, and sharper attacks, often resembling chirps of static from a shortwave radio, or the pops and crackles of a dusty potentiometer; within this basic palette there is a depth and breadth, however, and a strong sense of internal, developmental logic. Although it is easy enough to classify this work as ambient music, its glitchy and chaotic elements demand more active listening than much music of that ilk. Without that predictability, this is not music to simply float the listener away, although it is certainly deeply immersive: there is a strong sense of space, and of slow processes unfolding in that space, but many of the more concrete sounding elements are very much in the foreground, flattening out the impression of depth, highlighting the artifice and agency in the music. The verbose chirruping found in ‘Gestalt’, or the dissonant organ chords that appear suddenly in the middle of ‘Longitude’, never quite cohering into definable voicings, cut directly across the grain of ambient music’s conventional principles, adopting its stylistic and formal language but refusing its sense of music as a decorative or mood-directing environmental feature. Instead patches are allowed to collapse, to evolve, and to produce novelty from their own degradation: Nils Quak consistently displays the courage and commitment to follow opening conditions to their conclusions, rather than constraining their implications to an imposed formal structure. Much of the music here seems to be generative, in the manner of Minimalist music, although it is only in ‘Please Give Me Sleep’ that there is anything overtly resembling the rhythmic phasing of Minimalism; instead he sets up synthesiser patches with built in instabilities, and lets them create the semblance of narrative in the traces of their self-destruction. ‘Fragments of disappearance’ is the English translation of the album title, but the point of the album seems to be that in the self-effacement of each sound there are new meanings to be found, revealed rather than expressed truths, a palimpsest that discloses more about the process by which it came to be than the significance of the text it once bore. These are involving, and even pleasing sounds, but they are demanding of the listener’s attention, and sometimes present an aesthetic challenge. For these reasons and more, they offer a listening experience that satisfies and enriches on all levels, emotional, aesthetic, intellectual and sensual.