AMN Reviews: Heather Leigh – I Abused Animal (Editions Mego / Ideologic Organ, 2015)

SOMA023cvrB-350x350By Dan Coffey

Heather Leigh’s new album is a progression in sound and intensity, showcasing first her vocal talent before gradually letting loose with the extreme noise coming from her amplified pedal steel guitar that she’s perhaps most famous for. This album is her most song-based, lyrically oriented album to date. She’s had a smattering of solo albums over the years, as well as having worked with Charalambides and Christina Carter (in the duo known as Scorces), and featured in the bands Taurpis Tula and Jailbreak.

The album opens with the title track, a gently sung folk tune with eerie backing vocals, despite the disturbing title.  “Quicksand,” the album’s second of six tracks, consists of a slightly more powerful vocal and introduces her guitar work in a fashion that’s raw but still comparatively tender. This builds up to the third track, “All That Heaven Allows,” a sonic workout that pushes the pedal steel beyond where the listener expects it to go. It’s slightly reminiscent of Zeena Parkins’ amplified harp playing on her album No Way Back, but with even less restraint.

By way of respite, “Passionate Reluctance” brings Leigh back to folkish, gentle singing, and the closer, “Fairfield Fantasy,” eschews the extreme noise for a more expressive style of playing that, with its woozy tonal shifts, is pleasantly disorienting.

This album marks a break from the side-long noise workouts Leigh is known for, both solo and with her dueling partner, drummer Chris Corsano, in Jailbreak, as well as a split from the experimental all-vocal album Cuatro. It shows significant growth and confidence as a songwriter, and, while the earlier material is definitely worth either checking out or returning to, I Abused Animal is a step in an exciting direction.

AMN Reviews: Lindsay Cooper, Rarities Volumes 1 & 2

By Dan Coffey

LindsayCooperLindsay Cooper, like contemporaries Fred Frith, Tim Hodgkinson, and John Greaves, cut their avant-garde teeth in the uncompromising leftist band Henry Cow. Cooper had been playing with the progressive rock band Comus when she was invited to join Henry Cow. The rest really is history, but not a well-known one. After Henry Cow’s demise, Cooper started a band called News from Babel. Both the Henry Cow and News from Babel material are fairly well-documented, but there is so much more to Cooper’s musical legacy that remains largely unknown to any but the most diehard fans. Rarities, Volumes I & II attempts to redress the various oversights in Cooper’s eclectic career as composer and improviser on some of the toughest instruments to bring to any kind of combo – jazz, rock, or improvisatory – mainly the oboe, bassoon and sopranino saxophone.

Cooper suffered for many years from Multiple Sclerosis and had to retire from playing before her time. After succumbing to the disease in September, 2013, plans were made to hold a concert in her honor, with various combinations of musicians performing Cooper’s compositions. Thankfully, there’s a recorded legacy to go with that concert. This 2 disc set is full of treasures. Not all of the tracks are previously unreleased, but the ones that aren’t are extremely rare. Throughout the span of this set we get to hear songs that were originally released on limited edition cassettes or as bonus LPs that came with a subscription.

The set starts out with a suite of 26 short songs written for films and television shows. Other highlights feature a “piano roulette” that was previously unreleased. Also seeing the light of day for the first time is a performance by the band Trio Trabant, formed by Alfred Harth, who invited Cooper and Phil Minton to join. Trio Trabant have only ever released one CD; the music here is from a live performance made available for the first time.

This is an essential album that fills in the cracks between the Lindsay Cooper that most people are aware of, and at the same time is not esoteric enough to be a “collector’s only” item; although labeled as “rarities,” it is an excellent introduction to the varied career of the sadly missed Cooper.

Dan Coffey’s Top Albums of 2014

English: Peter Hammill onstage solo at Nearfes...
Peter Hammill

2014 has been a great year for unearthing lost gems as well as finding newly compressed diamonds. Here is a list, in no particular order, of the best recordings released this year, with links to information about each one. Here’s to 2015 and the makings of another list…

  1. Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas – Otherworld (Esoteric)
  2. Ashley Paul – Heat Source (Important Records)
  3. Amy Kohn – PlexiLusso (Palpebre)
  4. Officer! – Ossification (Knock ‘Em Dead)
  5. R. Stevie Moore – 1952-19?? (Cordelia)
  6. Fripp and Eno – Live in  Paris, May 28, 1975 (DGM)
  7. Fred Frith &John Butcher – The Natural Order (Northern Spy)
  8. Steve Lacy – Cycles (Emanem)
  9. Ideal Bread – Beating the Teens (Cuneiform)
  10. John Edwards, Mark Sanders, & John Tilbury – A Field Perpetually at the Edge of Disorder (Fataka)

AMN Reviews: Phil Minton + Audrey Chen + Guy Segers + Peter Jacquemyn + Teun Verbruggen – Quintet; Phil Minton + Audrey Chen – By the Stream (Sub Rosa)

sr311Phil Minton + Audrey Chen + Guy Segers + Peter Jacquemyn + Teun Verbruggen – Quintet (Sub Rosa)
Phil Minton + Audrey Chen – By the Stream (Sub Rosa)

Both of these albums, released simultaneously by Sub Rosa, feature the unique talents of Phil Minton and Audrey Chen. Quintet was apparently designed to see how Minton and Chen work together in a jazz-improvisation setting, while the duo album was meant to showcase the particular, and peculiar, vocal improvisatory talents of these two artists.

Chen came to free music by way of years spent at a conservatory studying cello. Indeed, she plays cello as well as using her voice on the Quintet album. Compared to Minton, who has been honing his craft for decades, she’s a newcomer, but she’s seasoned enough to have developed her own approach to ensemble and duo performance. Minton, as mentioned, is well-known for his astounding vocal abilities. I won’t begin to list the sounds he’s capable of here, but they are legion, and uniformly uncanny.

That said, both he and Chen seem to be somewhat at a loss for what to do in the quintet setting. Their performances are mostly sublime, but they don’t seem to be able to engage with the other three players: a drummer, an electric bassist (Guy Segers of Univers Zero), and a double-bassist. And the same goes for the trio. One gets the sense that Minton and Chen are in the same studio as the trio, but neither group knows quite how to proceed in terms of the other, except for Chen’s cello playing, which seems very sympathetic to the group. If listened to for the performances of Chen and Minton, this disc can be quite enjoyable. The last two tracks, dominated by the jazz trio, show that they have a tight rapport and can even bring a little funk into the proceedings. It would be nice to hear more from that trio on its own merits.

By the Stream, the Minton + Chen duo album, in contrast, is a thing of wonder. On every track Minton and Chen come across as alien creatures conversing with each other, either as old friends, or as wary strangers, unsure whether to embrace or fight. On this album, Chen forgoes the cello and puts all of her power into her voice. She tends toward a drone in her vocal improvisations, holding one note for extended periods of time, while Minton is everything and everywhere else – the wind, the voice of a commanding soldier, an existentially distraught man at his very nadir, a baby, – all things that seem to wrap, snake-like, around the solid pole that Chen provides with her steadier vocals. Similar to the work that Jaap Blonk has done with Maja Ratkje, these 14 tracks are otherworldly meetings in a universe that you should be glad you only are able to visit sonically. Beautiful, but at the same time frightening, and as with all Minton’s vocal improv work, completely decentralizing.

AMN Reviews: Peter Hammill – …all that might have been… (Fie! 2014)

by Dan Coffey

large4835Reviewing a new Peter Hammill album is never easy, but it’s always fun. Never more so than now.  Hammill’s had something of a late-career renaissance, producing some of the most intellectually dense (Incoherence) and emotionally moving (Thin Air) albums in the mid to late 2000s, plus the outstanding Otherworld with Gary Lucas, released earlier this year.

But here’s the fun part: none of those albums, or indeed anything in Hammill’s expansive oeuvre, could prepare one for the sprawling …all that might have been… Welcome to a musical film, where, as Hammill says, the music is both film and soundtrack. Welcome to the world of Alien Clocks and Piper Smiles, to vocals as wild as anything since Hammill’s guest stint on Robert Fripp’s Exposure. And while you’re walking around this sonic wonderland, you won’t be able to ignore guitar riffs lifted straight out of Hammill’s pre-punk Nadir’s Big Chance album, and overall the most sonically dense and widest palette of sounds Hammill’s thrown together to date.

…all that might have been… comes in two formats. The main presentation of the work is meant to be a 70-odd minute audio version of a film. To that end, snippets of songs are woven together to form a kind of anti-narrative that nonetheless gives clues as to situations and predicaments. The film that Hammill’s making, of course, isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster. It isn’t even new. Instead, it plays out like an homage to the French New Wave films, film noir, and perhaps a certain Japanese film called Audition. Hammill’s character comes off as an amalgam of all the tough-guy romantic gangster types with, if not hearts of gold, a sense of existential dread – think Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless or Pierrot le Fou.  The unsettling time jumps in Hammill’s work are also a nod to Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

The Japanese theme of the last film mentioned isn’t an accident. A good portion of the action in this album takes place in a metropolitan area of Japan. (Perhaps Hammill was doing research during his extended residencies in Japan over the past several years.) What happens in Japan stays between the 0s and 1s of the disc, but we get enough of a sense to know that our character has brought a heap of trouble on himself.

And then there’s the Piper Smile. In a sense, this story, such as it is, draws heavily from several of the faerie myths of the Piper, who gave a gift to a poor soul with instructions to never disrespect the gift. As these tales go, the gift’s recipient inevitably messes up, and is left bereft once more. The woman Hammill’s character is romantically involved with is the Piper. Her gift was narrative.

Peter Hammill of van der Graaf Generator at th...
Peter Hammill

An unsettling but wholly satisfying piece of work for sure, but there’s more. Hammill is releasing this cine-album as a single disc, but he’s also releasing It as one of a three-disc set. Disc two of this set comprises the full songs from which the snippets that weave in and out of disc one are taken. A curious move, for sure, to release the album of actual songs as an “extra.” But Hammill’s confidence in the cine-album as having enough strength to be the leading card is well-placed. The songs, probably because in some sense Hammill knew that they were going to be spliced up, are themselves full of changes. Almost all the songs go through several dramatic changes and rarely end up where they started. It’s as if one of the epic and lengthy songs by his band, Van der Graaf Generator, was compressed into a five-minute frame, with all the abrupt changes left intact. Disc two, consists of ten excellent new songs by Hammill, which provide a hell of a musical ride of another kind. The third disc is simply four long tracks with improvisations on the main themes presented in the first two discs. A nice listen, but without the punch of the “cine” disc or the “songs” disc.

Hyperbole is its own worst enemy in the genre of music reviewing, so believe me when I say I’m taking the leap anyway and putting my money on this one being the most ambitious and successful album of Hammill’s career.

Related reviews:
Van der Graaf Generator – ALT
Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas – Otherworld

AMN Reviews: People – 3xAWoman (Telegraph Harp, 2014)

By Dan Coffey

people_3xawoman_tcPerhaps the least important thing about this furious and hilarious bass, drums, and guitar combo (with occasional brass conspirators) is that the electric guitar player is Mary Halvorson. Along with her bandmates, Kevin Shea (Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and Kyle Forester, she has created People, a band that is aware of the line between avant-garde “post”-rock and improvisational jazz, and is keen on obliterating it. Halvorson, of course, is the jazz critics’ current darling guitar player, and she seems keen on releasing as much music in as many band formations as she can. But in People, she takes a back seat to the overall conceptual humor and chaotic noise.

Which is not to say she doesn’t make her presence felt.  There are quite a few spots throughout the album, especially on the few longer tracks, where things slow down a bit and her non-distorted jazz chords pop up. But mostly she’s content to play what’s needed, and sing the lead vocals. This is not to say the album’s uncomplicated; time signature changes abound, complex vocal harmonies challenge the instrumental passages, and then there are the lyrics, courtesy of drummer Kevin Shea.

Lyrically, this album is conceptually self-aware, and precious almost to a fault; its saving grace is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In 1977, Peter Blegvad, John Greaves, and Lisa Herman released an album called Kew. Rhone that could be called a precursor to this album, both in terms of its own way of obliterating the line between jazz and rock (rather than submitting to fusion) and self-referentiality. But where Blegvad and Greaves wrote songs whose lyrics described the artwork included on the album sleeve and consisted of anagrams of the album title, People go one step further, and, seemingly impossibly, lyrically dissect the very songs they’re performing. And taking a run at Lionel Richie.

While the album, oddly, starts out with a New Orleans-influenced brass-only piece that begins in a funereal tone and ends up as a bright, ecstatic toe-tapper, it then abruptly goes into high-speed car-chase momentum with titles like “These Words Make up the Lyrics of the Song,” “A Song with Melody and Harmony and Words and Rhythm,” and the clincher, “The Lyrics Are Simultaneously About How the Song Starts and What the Song Is About,” in which Halvorson and Shea explain to you what you are hearing and urge you to guess what is about to come next in the song. There are also a few songs that, as the album title suggests, take on the lyrics of a certain Lionel Richie/Commodores song: “What’s So Woman About That Woman,” and “Reinterpreting Confusing Lyrics to Popular Songs.” Unfortunately the lyrics are somewhat hard to make out, but it’s clear that Richie is getting the business for the absurdity of his famous and titular line, “You’re once, twice, three times a lady.” People (the band) make fun of the mathematical implications as well as the problematic gender and sexual overtones.

Yes, humor belongs in music. What doesn’t belong is snobbery, and this CD would be a great thing to toss the way of hipsters who have come to disdain jazz and “respectable” journalists for major newspapers who claim that jazz is dead, eviscerated, and irrelevant. This is the new thing.

 

 

 

AMN Reviews: Fripp & Eno – Live in Paris May 28, 1975

71wZrqnWZtL._SX450_By Dan Coffey

What’s more exciting than the onslaught of King Crimson merchandise, including the 27-CD “Starless” box set? The 3CD Fripp & Eno live performance in Paris on May 28, 1975. Live in Paris 28.05.1975 is a study in contradictions. Soothing and terrifying, smooth and rough around the edges.

One can’t review a live performance consisting of the material from Fripp & Eno’s first two albums, No Pussyfooting (1972) and Evening Star (1975) without first becoming conversant with those albums. Both of these albums consist of audio tape being run through two loops, each controlled by Eno, while Fripp plays guitar both onto the tape as Eno is manipulating it, as well as “live.”  No Pussyfooting comes on like a mental massage if you’re wearing headphones, with its lead in track, “The Heavenly Music Corporation.” Eventually, Fripp forgoes using his and Eno’s effects to make his guitar experimentation sound pretty, and rips into some deliciously evil sounds. The other side of the original No Pussyfooting album is a track titled “Swastika Girls,” which is somewhat off-putting due to Eno’s over-use of found sounds to add to his tape loop. It’s as if he didn’t have enough faith in the process to leave well enough alone.

No Pussyfooting was a milestone for both members of the duo: it sent Eno on his lifelong trip of making ambient music, and, although, Fripp held onto King Crimson for several more years, he learned that he could function musically as a “small, intelligent, mobile unit.” Many of the critics loved No Pussyfooting when it came out; “discerning” listeners, and King Crimson fans especially, hated it.  “The Heavenly Music Corporation” was used as “walk on” music during King Crimson’s later tours; by many accounts, the band, sans Fripp, hated it. (You can hear it on the beginning of the live Crimson album USA.)

There is a commitment in listening. It’s Fripp without a floor; that is to say, there’s no band to underpin his diabolical shreds and riffs. Just Eno with his sonic clouds and mirrors. In 1975, the year that this live recording took place, Fripp and Eno’s second album was released. It consisted of shorter songs, and a somewhat gentler tone – the loop felt more like a wash of sound.

The live album, out now in November, throws much of what we know about Fripp and Eno on its ear. The softness of the tunes performed from Evening Star are made into wholly different pieces of music, due to Fripp’s particularly abrasive guitar playing, matched by Eno’s savage tape manipulation, and his interesting looped found spoken word samples. Much of the first two albums are represented here, but the meat of the show is the improvisational pieces such as “A Fearful Proper Din,” and “A Darn Psi Inferno.”

If you loved the first two Fripp and Eno albums, you owe it to yourself to check this set out. If they left you wanting more King Crimson – more Fripp – I’d venture to say that Fripp is as engaging, enthralling, and terrifying here as he is with any Crimson album. Perhaps more so, because there’s nobody else there onstage to soften the brunt. Just Eno, and he only takes the brunt and amplifies it. Essential listening no matter how one feels about Fripp and Eno. This is live, warts and all, with no studio time to smooth out the rough spots.

AMN Reviews: Ashley Paul – White Night

21ashleyAshley Paul – White Night  (Important Records, Cassauna series, SAUNA21)

By Dan Coffey

Ashley Paul’s latest release, before her upcoming full-length album on Important Records, is a cassette containing six songs. The Brooklyn-based new face on the avant-garde improv/compositional circuit has become quite prolific. Here she uses the cassette medium to create what seems like a suite in two parts, the songs tied together by explorations of loss and determination to find what has been lost. To that end, the music, all performed by Paul save for guest appearances by Eli Keszler on percussion on the title song and Greg Kelley on trumpet on another cut.

Paul plays quite a bit of guitar on these songs – deceptively simple combinations of three or four notes repeated at different tempos to anchor the chaos that she brings into the mix. Much of the guitar sounds muddled and distant, so that when another few crisp, clear notes are played on electric guitar, one suddenly gets the feeling that they’ve been in a sonic closet with Paul and her contraptions. The almost-claustrophobic nature of many of these songs don’t become apparent until this juxtaposition occurs.

The first song, “Dragon,” features Paul’s frail vocals over low-key sonic mayhem. There is so much bowing and scraping in addition to what sounds like all manner of mechanical objects being put into play, that one can imagine Tom Waits at Paul’s studio door, yelling “LET ME IN! LET ME AT THAT STUFF!” But Paul gives the contraptions center stage, moving her voice to the periphery – something Waits would never do. Another way of looking at what Paul is doing throughout the recording, but especially on “Dragon,” is to compare it to the second and third tracks of Sun Ra’s “Strange Strings”; there is a naiveté here, a sense that Paul is pushing herself out of her comfort zone, playing instruments that are not her strongest suit. Which makes the listening experience that much more transfixing.

The second track on side one, “I’m Finding You,” actually does place Paul’s voice in the forefront. It’s a much shorter piece with beautifully strained vocals that speak to a faith held despite certain odds that only the singer knows (“I’m finding you / I know you’re there). The guitar is much more prevalent in this track, reminding one of a combination of Derek Bailey-lite with echoes of Mary Halvorson.

The final song on side one is sort of a reprise of “Dragon,” but without vocals and with quite a bit more unrestrained mayhem. Side two opens with the almost ballad-like title track, again concerned with the themes of loss and finding. Paul pulls out some truly beautiful guitar work and vocals on this one. Since we’ve already mentioned Bailey, Halvorsen, and Sun Ra, one more analogy can’t hurt. “White Night” sounds like a dead ringer for much of the early 80s post-Henry Cow “Rock in Opposition” output, particularly Lindsay Cooper’s “News from Babel” project. One almost expects to hear Dagmar Krause or Robert Wyatt join in on the vocals.

The second track on side 2, “Goodbyes,” is also reminiscent of the noisier side of the Rock in Opposition movement. Fred Frith’s “guitars on the table” style of playing and the “Downtown” improv scene of the early/mid-80s is directly referenced here, to amazing effect.  The final track, “Run the Walls,” continues the RIO theme, sounding more like very-late period Henry Cow and Art Bears recordings. Paul really manages to go against the vocals heard previously, for a more cacophonous effect, reminiscent of what Dagmar Krause was doing in the Art Bears in the early 1980s.

All these referents shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a distinctly original album by a multi-talented artist still finding her place in the musical world. After listening to this cassette, one might hope she never does find her place.

AMN Reviews: Albert Ayler – The Albert Ayler Story

aas4Fifty years ago on July 10, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, and Gary Peacock recorded the sessions that would be released as the Spiritual Unity LP, the fledgling ESP-Disk‘ label’s first musical offering, and one of many Ayler releases that would serve as the muscle and backbone of ESP’s (for short) eclectic yet focused catalog. I have a hard time not thinking of the digital download-only (the equivalent in length of four CDs) commemorative release, “The Albert Ayler Story,” as “The ESP Story.” Forty-nine of the compilation’s sixty-eight tracks are recorded interviews with Ayler and other relevant players on the topics of Ayler’s music and the label’s output, leaving little room for the music itself.

What there is of the music is mostly available on other in-print ESP Ayler albums, making this release somewhat of a label sampler. It is an incomplete “Albert Ayler story,” since, as ESP label-head Bernard Stollman would be among the first to mention, Ayler’s music changed radically (and Ayler changed music radically) when he left ESP in 1966 and signed to the much larger and more well-known (if not quite as exciting for the adventurous jazz-fan) Impulse! label.

Ayler didn’t record very many albums, and of his discography, virtually all the ESP discs are essential listening and readers of this review will most likely be familiar with them. The interviews are crucial to this collection’s uniqueness — it’s fascinating to hear Ayler talk with equal parts glibness and never-lost innocence about his childhood, and to hear characterizations of Ayler from some of his musical colleagues like Don Cherry and Sunny Murray. While some of it starts to get a little gossipy and puerile, most of the interview material is rooted in matters of culturally historic importance: the passing of Coltrane; the view of “free improvisation” as a solely “Black” movement; reminiscences of Ayler himself are all topics that have multiple voices chiming in. Perhaps the most detached, self-assured of these voices is Stollman’s, and he certainly racks up the most interviews in this compilation, providing a thread that takes the listener through every contact point between Ayler and the label. None of what Stollman says is really news, though it’s fun to listen to the occasional new anecdote; it’s all been put down in Jason Weiss’s exhaustive study of the ESP-Disk’ label, Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan, 2012).

While important, the interviews don’t reward repeated listenings for anyone except perhaps scholars in cultural studies or musicology, but Stollman – still at the ESP helm – has a few new things to offer. The compilation is fleshed out with commercially unreleased (to the best of my knowledge) live performances by various iterations of Ayler’s bands from 1964, 1967 (a date just prior to the infamous live recording released by Impulse!), and 1970. The second of two completely different songs titled “Vibrations,” both performed on the same date in Copenhagen in September, 1964, is why this collection needs to have shelf space on your hard drive: the simultaneous interplay of Don Cherry on cornet with Ayler on tenor sax, and Gary Peacock’s bass with Sunny Murray’s drumming, is ferocious in an exploratory rather than abrasive way, and the mixture of bravado and fragility is what will make your hair stand on end. It’s what I’ll be returning to. But make no mistake: it’s worth restating that this is only the Albert Ayler story insofar as it concerns ESP-Disk’. An important chapter, but not nearly the whole saga.

AMN Reviews: Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas – Otherworld

peterOtherworld (Esoteric, 2014)

Otherworld marks the meeting of two musicians, Peter Hammill and Gary Lucas, who have made careers out of bridging the avant-garde with the popular, in very different ways. Lucas is well-known for, among other things, playing seemingly impossible compositions for guitar as part of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, working with the late Jeff Buckley, and providing a live accompaniment to a screening of the 1920 German film The Golem is nothing if not a natural collaborator – his recordings and live performances with other musicians are legion. Hammill, on the other hand, has been relentlessly following his musical vision since the late 1960s, both solo and as a key member of Van der Graaf Generator, on a path that he has traveled mostly alone, with only a small, and progressively thinning, coterie of musicians to accompany his vocals and keyboard or guitar playing. In recent years, his solo albums have been truly one-man shows. Given Hammill’s apparent reticence in the area of collaboration, Otherworld comes as quite a surprise.

And the album is surprisingly powerful. There is an alchemy here between these two mavericks that mixes the very different styles of guitar playing (Hammill’s competent but deliberately abrasive electric guitar riffs, and Lucas’s virtuosic playing that ranges from ambient to bluesy to effects-laden as called for) into something like musical gold.

Many bases are touched here: the opening gentle ballad “Spinning Coins,” the riff-driven “Cash,” and the eerie “Some Kind of Fracas” are just a few examples. “Spinning Coins” sets the album up to be a typical contemporary Hammill album; odd but not too bizarre chord sequences and lyrics that start with “her” leaving “him” and ending with a musing on how all life events may be based on randomness. It could be on any Hammill album — Lucas’s presence isn’t very noticeable yet. But then things get weird. The second song, “Some Kind of Fracas,” features the vaguest of lyrics combined with plodding and stuttering guitar over which one hears layers of sculpted noise. It is eerie and disquieting – which of course translates to pure fun – and things just get better from there. It’s still Hammill’s voice, lyrics, and guitar, but in another — an other — world.

Hammill has hinted at times at the possibility of this type of recording. As far back as 1979, he started experimenting with the open-ended possibilities of pure noise on his pH7 album, and continued those experiments through the following year’s A Black Box. Otherworld seems to have allowed Hammill to see these experiments through in a way that he couldn’t have accomplished thirty years ago, given, among other things, his shoestring budget and the comparative lack of recording technology. Many of the songs and instrumental soundscapes on this album sound like the final realization of these efforts.

There are a few other ballads on the album, “Of Kith and Kin,” and “Two Views,” but the meat of the recording lies in the instrumental pieces which verge on musique concrete: “Built from Scratch,” and “Slippery Slope.” The former contains some effects that are so over-the-top in a 1950s sci-fi movie fashion, that one’s first instinct may well be to chuckle, but the noises turn from kitschy to sinister in a heartbeat, and then sublimely beautiful birdsong-like noises before finally veering into psycho-terror again. The high point of the album is the song “Black Ice,” which features frenetic and abrasive guitar playing and some of Hammill’s best lyrics, and then cuts into slabs of sheer noise before abruptly picking up the song form again as if nothing had happened.

Gary Lucas’s presence is all over this album while Hammill’s cuts straight through the middle. Otherworld fits well into the Hammill canon, but Lucas is indispensable and provides some very challenging playing — less counterpoint than  catalyst — that makes this album such an unqualified success. His playing particularly shines in the mostly gentle instrumental “Attar of Roses,” which is reminiscent of the album he released in 2001, Edge of Heaven,  on which he reworked Chinese pop songs from the 1930s – 1950s. One gets the feeling that this was a particularly fun project for Lucas — a self-professed long time Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator fan, but it’s just another stop on his musical road. But he gave Hammill the foil he seemed to need to up the stakes a little bit – the vocals are a little bit less restrained than they have been of late. More importantly, the freedom that Lucas provided from sticking to either the strictly song-based structure or the entirely instrumental attempts at experimentation that have been less than successful (see Unsung and Sonix), gave Hammill the inspiration he needed to create some of his most vital music to date.