Death In the Gilded Age references the well-established link between one’s position in society (largely defined by wealth) and life expectancy. Recorded in early 2021 during one of the darkest periods of COVID lockdown, this causational pattern was on the minds of these four improvisers as pandemic-related deaths in the U.S. were just coming off their peaks. Recognizing how structural problems impact a society that lauds the purported autonomy of the individual is sadly still a radical idea in some parts. Thus, the resulting music, a set of aggressive free improvisations across ten short tracks, is a suitably radical expression of these concepts.
I’ll admit a margin of familiarity with all of the contributors. Their geo-styles are variations on New York based creative music that focus as much on texture and feel as on technique. Brought together by violinist Joanna Mattrey, the collective includes fellow violinist gabby fluke-mogul, as well as guitarists Matteo Liberatore and Ava Mendoza. Each of these individuals has a “rising star” potential in the sense that recognition of their efforts seems to be growing.
And such acknowledgment is deserved. Death In the Gilded Age explores a multitude of points on several spectra – the free to the structured, tradition to extended techniques, smoothness to grittiness, just to name a few. But the most striking and immediately noticeable aspect of the album is its relentless density and spiky dissonance. Simply put, there is a lot going on and it can be challenging to unpack. One violinist might be playing an angular melody while the other produces distorted textures. Simultaneously, the electric guitar seems to be heading in its own direction with soloing while the acoustic guitar is strummed in a percussive fashion. Oftentimes members of the collective are generating unconventional sounds that require extra effort to identify the source instrument. All of this moves along at a rapid pace while constantly changing – any notion of melody or rhythm is transient.
This album is beautiful and elegant in its sheer refusal to conform to musical norms. Very well done and a candidate for many repeated listenings.