AMN Reviews: Silt Ensemble / Michael Zerang – Follow the Light (2019; Pink Palace Recordings)

Drummer Michael Zerang is no stranger to those of us in Chicago, and has made a name for himself outside of the Windy City as well through his many collaborative recordings and live performances. Follow the Light, released on January 9, marks yet another a new direction for him – a drone-heavy chamber string ensemble.

Joined by violists Julie Pomerleau and Johanna Brock and contrabassists Jason Roebke and Anton Hatwich, Zerang provides the composition and plays his custom instrument, Queequeg’s Coffin. As described by Zerang, “[t]he instrument has the scale length of a full sized cello, with four strings that are vibrated by a circular, wooden wheel – the same mechanism that sounds a Hurdy Gurdy.”

Consisting of one 43-minute track, the album features several movements with most or all performers active throughout. It begins with a detailed, layered drone that lasts until about the 14 minute mark. This morphs into an amalgam of glissando workouts from the entire group, taking the piece in a 20th-century classical direction. Around the half-way point, aggressive and disjointed bowed sawing takes over, which later synchronizes into a handful of chaotic but discernable themes. Toward the end, the ensemble bangs on their instruments along with playing fractured melodies before a droning reprise.

As with many recordings of this ilk (if indeed an ilk can be identified here), it can be hard to tell to what extent Zerang is instructing the group.  To hazard a guess, his composition is likely more of a framework that provides a degree of improvisational freedom to the individual players. Regardless, each member appears to head in his or her own direction under Zerang’s rubric, the end result being a polyphonous cacophony. Tension, a sense of urgency, and perhaps anxiety are the dominant moods.

Follow the Light is a recording that has to be experienced to be understood. Despite its harshness and angularity, this is a very compelling listen and highly enjoyable. Two thumbs way up.