Based in Washington D.C., Cuneiform Records has released over 400 recordings of avant-rock, progressive rock, creative jazz, ambient/electronic, and experimental music. As one of the most respected labels to operate in these genres, it should not be surprising that Cuneiform has put out a large number of excellent offerings over the last 30 years.
Below is an ongoing and growing list of our Avant Music News reviews of relatively recent Cuneiform albums. Far from comprehensive, this list just scratches the surface of a quintessential independent label.
Jack O’ the Clock – Leaving California (2021)
Leave it to Jack O’ the Clock to produce a song-oriented album that ostensibly is quirky folk-rock, but manages to provide a further set of layers to pull back. Perhaps the foremost modern dark Americana outfit, this quintet’s latest is titled based on bandmembers Damon Waitkus (vocals, guitars, hammer dulcimer) and Emily Packard’s (violin) decision to leave their long-term home in California for the East Coast. While Waitkus and Packard, a married couple, moved relatively recently, these songs were written over the last few years. Their bandmates, Jason Hoopes (bass), Jordan Glenn (drums), and Thea Kelley (vocals) remained in California and the group finished the album remotely.
Perhaps this distance gave lyricist Waitkus some time to reflect, as the mood to these songs is melancholy and yet also oddly exhibiting more joy than the group’s previous outings. The lyrics of the title track, for example, express a psychological burnout with the stresses of living in the Golden State, a place of excess, expense, long commutes, and a strange disconnectedness. There is a resigned acceptance that their destination is better, not perfect, which is perhaps representative of most choices we make – the tradeoff of one set of problems for a more acceptable set of problems.
Also true to form, some of the songs call upon disturbing imagery combined with a strange sense of humor. The Butcher and A Quarter-Page Ad are examples. In contrast, Leaving California lacks the longer, involved chamber-rock instrumental breaks that are present on the group’s previous releases. Nonetheless, the musical sophistication remains, in more subtle forms. For instance, the vampy rhythm of The Butcher is accentuated by a plethora of different instruments trading off twisted motifs as well as a variety of other styles represented across its passages.
In sum, this is a departure from Jack O’ the Clock’s more overtly avant-prog oeuvre and yet is in line with the spirit of their previous work. Well done.
U Totem’s Debut Album 30 Years Later
There are so many ways to introduce U Totem. They were a short-lived five-piece progressive rock band from Southern California that came out of the merger of two earlier groups: Motor Totemist Guild (led by James Grigsby) and 5uus (led by Dave Kerman). Through group members and guests, U Totem can be connected to numerous bands, Thinking Plague and Cartoon being examples. In a way, U Totem was a centroid of North American avant-prog and Rock In Opposition (RIO) influenced music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This brings us to another way of introducing the group – as the logical successors to Henry Cow. U Totem’s self-titled debut (which is the focus of our discussion) is the closest thing that I’ve ever heard in spirit to Western Culture this side of Varese. But at the same time, U Totem doesn’t sound too similar to Western Culture, especially as the former makes heavy use of vocals while the latter is instrumental.
Another way of introducing the album is that it covers the last 500 years of western music history in 65 minutes. I did not come up with that observation, but after a fashion it fits. Indeed album’s seven tracks include two 15-minute epics sandwiching five other explorations. While there is a consistency throughout, each piece is unique and easily distinguishable from its companions. The album has even been the subject of a scholarly publication by music professor Brandon Derfler, who argued that U Totem should be considered in the broader category of “art music” rather than rock.
The core group was Emily Hay (voice, flute, piccolo), Sanjay Kumar (piano, electric keyboards, sitar), Eric Johnson-Tamai (bassoon, contrabassoon, soprano sax), Grigsby (bass, guitar, vibraphone, tapes), and Kerman (drums, percussion, tapes). But various tracks are enhanced with expanded lineups, typically featuring more vocalists or chamber instruments. The strong presence of flute and bassoon gives the music a distinctly classical feel, whereas the core elements of vocals, guitar bass, and drums pull in a more rock-oriented direction. Grigsby is often given credit for most of the compositions, but they were group efforts with Kerman heavily involved and other members contributing as well.
To the point of summarizing western music history, the opening track, One Nail Draws Another, features labyrinthine chamber rock structures and breaks, with an expanded nine-piece version of the group. There are passages with three vocalists simultaneously singing in three different languages (Renaissance polyphony), 12-tone serialism, ripping heavy guitar, and even sitar (okay, that’s not exactly western music but the main point is that you cannot easily put a box around these compositions). There is even a playful quote of the melody to rock band Blondie’s One Way or Another in the singing of “One Nail Draws Another”, as well as a few Orwellian references in the lyrics.
But rather than string together a bunch of different styles, which would not be terribly difficult to do nor would it be terribly creative, Grigsby and company integrate and combine these techniques with variations and embellishments of their own. It is not until you deconstruct One Nail Draws Another that you discover its breadth and depth. The track is nothing short of a tour de force of modern classical, art rock, and a bunch of other things.
Two Looks at One End blends studio manipulation with a slightly more straightforward structure. Well, straightforward with unusual percussion lines and a jagged rhythm. Dance of the Awkward continues the jagged rhythms with what might be considered circus-influenced music that switches tempos every few lines.
Both of Your Houses is one of the more multi-directional pieces, sounding reminiscent of the Art Bears while navigating through numerous chamber rock styles. Yellow Umbrella Gallery is a studio effort that makes a statement about commercialism in the form of a pastiche of recordings over abstract music. With it, Grigsby and company give a nod to musique concrète.
The Judas Goat is best labelled as avant-rock, with long instrumental breaks throughout its 10 minutes. The track also features a few unexpected textural moments including heavy metal guitar riffing toward the end. Vagabond’s Home is stylistically the most similar to One Nail Draws Another, with a distinct chamber rock approach start/stop rhythms. On the other hand, it replaces the epic power of the initial track with delicacy and relies far less on vocals. In doing so it employs both hyper-complexity and minimalism. The track ends with a repeating rhythmic structure over which flute and bassoon play contrapuntally, eventually being accompanied by Hay’s wordless singing.
In short, U Totem is one of very few albums that never wears out its welcome for me. Perhaps that is because it can hit you in on multiple levels – emotionally with its weird energy and listenability, and intellectually with its layers of detail and complexity. I am still unraveling its intricacies after three decades of listening.
And now a personal note. U Totem was scheduled to perform in Los Angeles in November 1993. I was studying at UC Davis at the time and had been blown away by the album. I could not talk any of my friends into coming with me to the show, so I was planning on driving down and back (6-7 hours each way) by myself to take it in. A couple of days beforehand, I came down with a terrible case of the flu. I was in pretty bad shape, and my girlfriend made it clear that it would be insane for me to make the trip. So I reluctantly stayed home and missed the show. On the bright side, the girl is now my wife, and there is a rough hand-held video with a five-piece arrangement of One Nail Draws Another from the show I missed.
Aside from this performance, there is a set from the 1990 New Music Montreal festival on YouTube. Another seminal performance was when the group appeared at the Art Rock Festival in Hamburg. They also played off and on in the Los Angeles area through the course of their existence, often in small venues, dive bars, or house parties. Grigsby recorded a number of these performances but the audio remains unreleased.
Thanks to Emily Hay for chatting with me about U Totem and providing a first-person perspective on this album and the band. More information on U Totem and related efforts can be found on James Grigsby’s website, Rotary Totem.
Thumbscrew – Never is Enough (2021)
Thumbscrew, the trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, has produced a series of must-have releases over the last 6 years, culminating in 2020’s The Anthony Braxton Project. During that session, they also worked on originals that make up their newest offering, Never is Enough.
Indeed, the influence of Braxton is present on this album as well, though perhaps at a subconscious level. One can hear echoes of Braxton on Through an Open Window and Emojis Have Consequences in Halvorson’s crisp soloing over knotty rhythms. She couples acoustic and undistorted electric to produce twisted notes and carry out speed-picking, while Formanek’s fingering continuously heads in unexpected directions. Fujiwara provides supple and snare-heavy percussion.
If anything, the album leans more introspective and melancholy than their previous efforts, with the title track’s slowly evolving structures being a prime example. The ballad-like Heartdrop is another. Fractured Sanity heads in several other, more assertive trajectories simultaneously, as the title would suggest. The densely packed Scam Likely spans these bearings.
Thumbscrew would never be mistaken as straight jazz or free improv, but these influences also subtly underlie the group’s writing. Instead, this an “anti-guitar-trio” – three individuals who take a traditional grouping of instruments that have been used across jazz and rock outfits for years, and head off into uncharted territory. Thus, Thumbscrew is anything but conventional and manages to break new ground even within this tried and true format.
Bisbâyé – Le Sens de la Fin (2021)
Canadian five-piece Bisbâyé has been around for 20 years and yet this is the first time their music has come across my speakers. That is not uncommon these days, as the music world is much bigger than ever before – even its less-explored areas continue to grow. Le Sens De La Fin (The Sense Of An Ending) is the group’s third full-length offering, following two EPs and two albums, and represents a compelling mixture of math rock, brutal prog, and technical metal.
With a lineup consisting of two guitarists, two drummers, and a bassist, Bisbâyé’s modus operandi includes interlocking polyrhythms, frequent time changes, and dense riffing. The band lists Don Caballero, Meshuggah, and King Crimson as influences, and comes across as a hyper-caffeinated blend of these groups. Other points of reference could be Upsilon Acrux, Ahleuchatistas, and maybe even Ruins.
Particularly of interest is how their oddly-timed dual guitar lines drift in and out of synch with one another. If anything this makes the rhythmic structures even more complex. Similar characteristics can be found in the drum lines but these are buried somewhat by the mix. While the album is an all-out assault with relentless heaviness, it is not dark nor is it unpleasant. In fact, some of the tracks are downright tuneful in a twisted and pugnacious fashion.
A Love Supreme Electric – A Love Supreme and Meditations (2020)
In the years leading up to his death in 1967, John Coltrane released a series of albums, and also recorded a series of sessions that would ultimately be released posthumously. These efforts illustrate the progression from his classic quartet period to a jarring avant-garde approach that was influenced by Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s best-known album and marks the ends of his classic quartet, while Meditations is a fitting example of his explorations thereafter that were cut short.
A Love Supreme Electric consists of a supergroup of sorts, with Vinny Golia on sax, John Hanrahan on drums, Henry Kaiser on guitar, Wayne Peet on piano and keys, and Mike Watt on bass. This 2-CD reimagining of A Love Supreme and Meditations is their expansive tribute to Coltrane’s legacy.
The iconic four-note theme of Acknowledgement kicks off the former album, with the group capturing the spirituality and drive of the recording. But rather than doing a full-on set of covers, the group blends familiarity with the new. In particular, Kaiser’s dueling with Golia adds new layers while remaining true to Coltrane’s general vision. Indeed, Kaiser seems to be trying to answer the question of what would have happened had Coltrane survived to collaborate with rock and fusion guitarists of the early 1970’s.
Meditations is more heady and psychedelic, with heavy textures from Peet and slides from Kaiser accompanying Golia’s soloing. The group explores and goes outside more frequently, merging free-improv stylings of the last several decades. These open-ended excursions are often centered around or smoothly evolve from Coltrane’s original charts. Notably, the inside-out sax theme of The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost is adapted into a full-group multiphonic blowout.
Tribute efforts like this one can be hit or miss. A Love Supreme Electric manages to hit on all cylinders, providing an authentic and respectful reworking that also speculates on where Coltrane would have gone in the future. Well done.
Schnellertollermeier – 5 (2020)
Guitar / bass / drum trio Schnellertollermeier returns with the aptly-titled 5, which of course is their fifth album. These instrumental tracks consist of overlapping, polyrhythmic notes and chords ala 80’s King Crimson. Melodies and themes ebb and flow as each piece grows and shifts in intensity. There is a hint of psychedelia here and there, as the repetitions become trancelike. But matters get most interesting when the group colors slightly outside of these lines but putting together jagged and complex rhythms with overdubbed guitar effects and harmonics. The guitar and bass take on unusually percussive roles. All of this is presented with mechanistic tightness and precision.
Comparisons with fellow Swiss group Sonar are perhaps suitable. If you’ve appreciated Schnellertollermeier in the past, you will almost certainly enjoy 5. And if you haven’t and this description makes you curious, this album is a great introduction to the band.
Thumbscrew – The Anthony Braxton Project (2020)
Thumbscrew is guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who also doubles on vibes), and bassist Michael Formanek. All have extensively performed or recorded with Anthony Braxton over the last couple of decades. Therefore, it is no surprise that they would collectively decide to provide an album of “covers” to celebrate Braxton’s 75th birthday. But there was no intent to make this release a best-of about Braxton’s more well-known pieces. Instead, Halvorson stated that “[t]he idea was for us to choose compositions of Anthony’s, mostly early compositions, which hadn’t been previously recorded (or, in a couple cases, recorded only once or twice).”
Going by Braxton’s opus numbers, most of the selected pieces are numbered less 70, which would place their years of origin before about 1975 or so. And indeed, even as someone who has listened to a great deal of Braxton (though will not claim anything resembling encyclopedic knowledge) few of these compositions seemed familiar upon first listen.
That is, while Braxton’s signature knotty rhythmic structures may suggest the composer, only one of the pieces screamed “Braxton” to these ears. This was Composition 61, which begins by the group exploring variations on a 5-note theme before it breaks out into controlled improvisation. Halvorson, Fujiwara, and Formanek add their own favor. Halvorson provides speed picking and note twisting, while Fujiwara’s supple yet intense snare work is a canvas upon which Formanek explores the extent of his bass without establishing a clear rhythm. The three go in and out of synch with each other in a masterful fashion, such that the richness of this three-minute offering makes it seem much longer.
To that point, the sheer diversity of the structural and textural elements at play across these 11 pieces can be overwhelming. Composition 68 features slow atmospherics, almost in a twisted folk style. Composition 35 is outside-oriented with Fujiwara on vibes and winds up with an intricate and percussive modern chamber feel. Composition 14 is presented three times, once for each instrumentalist performing solo. Of particular note is how Fujiwara makes his take harken to Varese yet captures Braxton’s playfulness.
Needless to say, trying to comprehend Braxton’s intellect through these recordings will keep you up late at night. Luckily, the compositions – and the performances herein – operate on many levels, and can be enjoyed on their face with further enlightenment achieved through repeated active listens. With Braxton75 performances on hold worldwide for the moment, The Anthony Braxton Project is a more than a suitable substitute to get your Braxton fix. Very strong recommendation.
Tomeka Reid Quartet – Old New (2019)
The title track of Old New kicks off the album with an aggressive rhythm from bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tomas Fujiwara – aggressive both in its driving, rock-oriented approach as well as how it evolves to fit into a recording of modern, creative jazz. Group leader and cellist Tomeka Reid joins in with electric guitarist Mary Halvorson to share a theme that alternates between a jagged staccato motif, a short catchy tune, and loosely-structured improvisation. The pair trades off lead duties and soloing in a collaborative and ego-less fashion that sets the tone for the recording as a whole.
Improvisation, of course, is a strength of this group. Nonetheless, Reid’s writing keeps the efforts grounded and rarely approaching all-out free jazz. She provides a few nods toward the tradition while heading off into uncharted waters. Indeed, the title of Old New is a descriptive fit for this strategy. Still, at a few points, Reid’s playing is clearly outside, with staggered melodies and extended techniques. Aug. 6 is a great example that seamlessly morphs into one of the more interesting themes of the album. Edelin is another in which the structure is unconventional and varied with powerful soloing.
As an accompanist, Halvorson provides her signature pitch bending, speed picking, and unusual chording. Fujiwara is an exceptionally versatile and busy drummer, both muscular and subtle. Roebke is a monstrous and accomplished bass player who can do it all – for an example of this one need look no further than Ballad, on which he adapts his playing from straight rhythm to more adventurous undercurrents that match Reid’s and Halvorson’s explorations.
Reid has long been on the periphery of outside music, quietly contributing to the efforts of giants such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and various AACM efforts, not to mention serving as a contributor on recordings from Nicole Mitchell, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Jaimie Branch. She has also co-led a number of groups. This is the second release of her self-named quartet. About four years ago she started appearing more on more on my radar, and has not let up since then. All of this suggests that Tomeka Reid is a talent on the rise.
Far Corner – Risk (2018)
Far Corner is the instrumental quartet of William Kopecky on bass, Dan Maske on keyboards, Angela Schmidt on cello, and Craig Walkner on drums, with Jerry Loughney contributing violin. Risk is their third studio album (technical their fourth album overall), and first in about decade. They play a rather charming and unique take on heavy chamber rock. As such, they fall in the middle ground between progenitors in both the 20th century classical and prog rock genres.
From the outset, the group makes it clear that they are not kidding around. Risk begins on the aggressive side and rarely lets up. Maske’s plethora of vintage and modern keyboards (I’m pretty sure I hear a mellotron in there) combines with Loughney’s riffing and lead themes to produce a retro, albeit non-derivative, sound. Kopecky and Schmidt and hold down the low end and then some, adding both color and further motifs. Walkner is a precise and busy drummer, who tightly drives the labyrinthine rhythms with generous use of the double bass.
Far Corner occasionally wears their influences on their sleeves. For example, Flim Flam Man could be subtitled Poking Fun at Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. On the other hand, Myopia is a heady and all-out prog anthem that heads in a more modern direction. But then Past Deeds, Present Treacheries exhibits more of a Univers Zero structure and feel. Further, The Chickening (a great song title) alternates between what sounds like electric guitar riffing (despite that instrument not being credited) and more melodic breaks.
At some point when listing to Risk, you need to just sit back and enjoy it. Regardless of its occasional toying with darkness, this is just a fun album. Highly recommended.
Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite (2018)
Alec K. Redfearn has been kicking around with various lineups of the Eyesores for over 20 years (and before that with the underrated Amoebic Ensemble). On The Opposite, he strips the group down to his accordion and vocals, along with Ann Schattle on horn, Christopher Sadlers on bass, loops, and vocals, and Matt McLaren on drums and percussion. But with more than a little studio processing, this quartet invokes a much bigger sound. Indeed, for the first few listens I could have sworn electric guitar was a prominent instrument.
In character with most of Redfearn’s output, the album is an unusual mix of weird Americana, folk/rock, and European Rock in Opposition. Unlike much of what is reviewed herein, the tracks (mostly) have a beat, circular melodies, and singing with a familiar structure. The tunes have a catchy urgency. But for all of its bounce, The Opposite goes to more than a few dark places lyrically, exploring arcane opposing relationships with heavy use of animal imagery.
Comparisons are difficult…maybe Kampec Dolores or Aksak Maboul overlaid with modern American dystopian rock. That doesn’t quite describe The Opposite, but it is a place to start. In the meantime, give Redfearn and company a chance. You won’t regret it.
Schnellertollermeier – Rights (2017)
This power trio’s odd name is derived from those of its constituents, bassist Andi Schnellmann, guitarist Manuel Troller, and drummer David Meier. Rights is the follow-up to their 2015 release, X (review). While the group’s basic approach has not changed – instrumental math rock with interlocking rhythms and a slight twinge of psychedelia. This 40-minute album is to the point. Its underlying structure is based on repetitions and variations on a handful of relatively simple yet layered themes. Not unlike late-era offerings from labelmates Present, Schnellertollermeier takes these building blocks and crafts skyscrapers of cinematic sound and texture. The outcome can be thought of a mix of Godspeed You Black Emperor with 80’s King Crimson. Or a Euro-take on Zevious and Ahleuchatistas. Troller’s use of harmonic-laden melodies, in particular, is reminiscent of the latter. A strong release.
Bubblemath – Edit Peptide (2017)
Do you like the English band The Cardiacs? You do? Good. Now give Bubblemath a try.
Not unlike their British predecessors, Bubblemath provides a vocal-oriented avant-pop / progressive rock with punk and Zappa influences, as well as more time changes than you can count. Edit Peptide, their second album, comes after what appears to be an unintentional 15-year hiatus. In any event, it is good to have them back.
The lineup is of the classic type: vocals, guitars, keys, bass, and drums, with all contributors adding backing vocals. Bubblemath also makes use of unusual instrumentation for a rock band: chimes, gong, glockenspiel, xylophone, dulcimer, mandolin, and banjo. Regardless, they will not let you forget that they are a rock band. That said, the aforementioned time changes come at you left and right, even mid-verse. And the song structure eschews convention, offering little repetition, and few choruses per se. The feel of the music is oftentimes a modern take on 70’s prog rock. The long solos are taken out and replaced with a sense of urgency, odd lyrical social commentaries, slick general weirdness, and more than a little fun.
Cuneiform Records has, of late, done a wonderful job putting out these advanced-but-accessible recordings. Even though they do not sound similar, Edit Peptide is a nice follow-on to last year’s Cuneiform release from Bent Knee (see below).
Miriodor – Signal 9 (2017)
It is hard to believe that it has been 25 years since I first heard Miriodor. Upon my first listen to 3è Avertissement in 1992, I took note their rather unique style and trappings – much different from any other avant-prog that I had heard to that point. Not to mention the gimmicky album cover.
Fast forward to the recently-released Signal 9, which features original members Pascal Globensky on keyboards and Rémi Leclerc on drums. They are joined by Nicolas Lessard on bass and Bernard Falaise on guitars. And if you like Miriodor’s circus-like music with labyrinthine twists and turn, then you will not be disappointed by this album.
In addition to the playfulness that the band has become known for, they incorporate heavy riffing, noise, and constantly shifting meters. In the middle of exploring one theme, they turn on a dime and head in a different direction. Maybe there will be a reprise, maybe not.
But the remarkable aspect of this release is its variety. For instance, Chapelle Lunaire begins with distorted, feedback-laden walls of sound before morphing into a simple folk theme that eventually goes all out with a complex set of prog melodies. The 10-minute Passage Secret alternates between downtempo noodling and electrified folk motifs, while Le Ventriloque et le Perroquet offers said circus music, interspersed with guitar-driven general weirdness.
Thinking Plague – Hoping Against Hope (2017)
Thinking Plague is the quintessential progressive rock band. This means that they do not sound similar to just about any other outfit that falls under that loose moniker. With each release, they move even further from their initial sound, which had a flavor not unlike that of the Art Bears. Here, on their eighth album in 35 years, group leader and guitarist Mike Johnson is joined by longtime collaborators Mark Harris on sax and clarinets, and Dave Willey on bass and accordion. Rounding out the group on this go-around are vocalist Elaine di Falco, drummer Robin Chestnut, and guitarist Bill Pohl.
Regardless of lineup, what makes Thinking Plague tick is Johnson’s compositions. Writing for the first time for two guitarists, he juxtaposed his own angular style with occasional rock pyrotechnics from Pohl. But overall, the tracks on Hoping Against Hope are dense, knotty, contrapuntal offerings. Not exactly chamber rock, they borrow from jazz but fall outside of that genre. Johnson’s lines are tight and intertwined, as he exhibits control over each member without making their recitations appear rote. They pull apart and come together with ease, and even feature a few fleeting free-form moments.
Notably, the phrasings are so odd as times that the contributions of the individual instruments in isolation can sound outright alien. This is particularly the case with di Falco’s vocals, swooping and diving through registers. Nonetheless, this is not necessarily any different from how Johnson wrote for his other vocalists.
It would be hard to point to any one particular track of the six on this album as necessarily standing out amongst the rest. Compositionally, Hoping Against Hope holds together as a unit. There is so much intellectually-challenging content to unpack, that I could probably come back in a few years and write a totally different review. Not only is this a superb album, it may very well be the best album from a group that has made a number of superb albums. Bravo.
Chicago / London Underground – A Night Walking Through Mirrors (2017)
Cornetist Rob Mazurek has developed a distinctive sound over the last decade or so – a form of open-ended improv that is based on premeditated themes, but spacious and deliberately paced with an emphasis on tasteful use of voice, electronics, and effects. Here, he teams with longtime collaborator Chad Taylor on drums, as well as two gentlemen from across the pond, Alexander Hawkins on piano and John Edwards on bass. The resulting Chicago / London Underground quartet traverse four long tracks on this debut recording, recorded live last April at London’s Cafe Oto.
Mazurek and Taylor, of course, are the Chicago Underground Duo. Playing and recording together for 20 years, they have released seven albums as the Duo, and several more with others as the Chicago Underground Trio or Chicago Underground Quartet. Taylor is sought-after in Chicago and elsewhere, having a storied career as a session-man. Hawkins, the youngest member of the group, is a notable creative-music pianist who is becoming a mainstay of the London scene. His influences include Art Tatum, Cecil Taylor, and Marilyn Crispell, and he plays “free” but with a great clarity. Edwards is a legendary player in European improv.
With such collective resumes amongst its members, the expectations for this version of the Underground is high. But perhaps the initial impression developed from listening to A Night Walking Through Mirrors is that the group will go just about anywhere. Mazurek offers some of his trademark echoing themes, but breaks them down while Taylor provides an active, driving rhythm, giving the whole drum kit a workout. Edwards is similarly up and down the bass, positively attacking and sawing at it at times, while Hawkins has the knack of putting the right notes in unexpected places.
The pacing varies, as each track has slower, structureless sections, as well as more full-out moments. Ultimately, the album captures the quintessential feel of a free-improv live performance – the dynamics, skillfulness, and idiosyncracies.
The result is nearly 80 minutes of intense, yet thoughtful music. Comparisons? None that are apt, though this might be what would have come from Miles Davis if he had taken a few more left turns around 1970. A subtle release with a character that grows.
Richard Pinhas & Barry Cleveland (feat. Michael Manring & Celso Alberti) – Mu (2016)
Over the last 40 years, guitarist Richard Pinhas has left a varied trail of recordings, from the progressive rock of Heldon, to his early synth-laden solo efforts, to more recent experimental partnerships with Merzbow, Wolf Eyes, Peter Frohmader, Pascal Comelade, and others. Cuneiform Records, which has released or re-released the majority of Pinhas’s catalog, will be putting out his two latest collaborations today. Read our review of the first here. Below, we discuss the second.
Fellow guitarist extraordinaire Barry Cleveland does not record often, but when he does it is worth paying attention. In his first new effort since 2010’s Hologramatron (an avant-rock protest album that is unfortunately even more relevant today than it was at its release), he teams with Pinhas, bassist Michael Manring and drummer Celso Alberti (the latter two played on Hologramatron) for a 50-minute, prog-leaning outing. Cleveland manages to take some of the harder edges off of Pinhas’s style, as evidenced by the first track, Forgotten Man. Therein, Pinhas and Cleveland combine to form catchy, yet complex, themes, over Eastern-style drumming.
The centerpiece of the album is the 25-minute second track, I Wish I Could Talk In Technicolor, featuring Manring’s signature wandering bass lines and Pinhas’s loops. The initial few minutes provide atmosphere, until Alberti comes in with a varying rhythm while Pinhas and Cleveland focus on holding long tones to create textures. Eventually, the track evolves into open improvisation over roughly composed parts. Throughout, the textures are more prevalent than actual melodies. The final two offerings, Zen/Unzen and Parting Waves continue the logical progression of I Wish I Could Talk In Technicolor, focusing on processed guitar ambiance and carefully picked notes.
Mu is a unique release – familiar and strange at the same time, non-mainstream and appealing. It is a worthwhile and compelling addition to the both the Pinhas and Cleveland discographies.
Richard Pinhas / Tatsuya Yoshida / Masami Akita [Merzbow] – Process and Reality (2016)
Here, Pinhas teams with drummer-extraordinaire Yoshida (from Ruins and Koenjihyakkei among many other outfits) and noise-maestro Merzbow. This is the fifth time Pinhas and Merzbow have worked together in the studio, and the second grouping of Pinhas with Yoshida, though this trio has toured extensively in Japan.
In short, this recording is a quartet of aggressive, spaced-out sessions. It would not surprise anyone familiar with Yoshida’s style to hear that he attempts to fill every moment with a percussive event of some type. In contrast to his overt hyper-intensiveness, Pinhas and Merzbow set forth atmospherics and texture. They weave walls of sound in which it can be hard to tell where one begins and the other leaves off, especially given Pinhas’s use of synth guitar, and well as Merzbow employing a slightly more restrained style than usual.
Consisting of four tracks, one short at about 3 minutes and the others ranging from 10 to 36, Process and Reality can, at times have a Krautrock feel. But these jams, if they can even be referred to as such, do not focus on long guitar solos, for instance. Pinhas instead provides short, disjointed themes and colorful clusters of notes.
Thematically, the album fits into Pinhas’s vision of dystopia – a dark industrial age. With 2016 being a year that has seen so much ugliness – politically, socially, economically – it is hard to fault the artist who reflects these factors in his music. However, despite the foreboding nature of this recording, Process and Reality is a highly enjoyable effort, and requires multiple listenings to pry apart the details.
The Claudia Quintet – Super Petite (2016)
A presence in the creative jazz scene for over 15 years, John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet is back with their eighth release, Super Petite. Their lineup has remained unusually static over time. The group currently features, in addition to Hollenbeck on drums, Red Wierenga on accordion, Matt Moran on vibes, Drew Gress on bass, and Chris Speed on clarinet and sax. It is hard, if not impossible, to pigeonhole their sound but for now let’s call it highly-composed chamber jazz with world music influences.
The album consists of ten short to medium length tracks, each one comprising Hollenbeck’s knotty writing, adeptly played by all. As an example, the opener, Nightbreak, features a soft, slow-moving contrapunctal theme of clarinet, vibes, and bass, with accordion and drums on backing roles. But Super Petite really gets moving with the third track, A-List, which starts with a wandering bass line, while the other instruments slow build up tension that breaks into a rather catchy and complex theme. Hollenbeck writes that this piece is a “theme song for an imaginary video featuring The Claudia Quintet strutting down the red carpet. Think ‘Entourage’ meets the ‘Geek Squad.'”
Several of the tracks are based on or influenced by works of the greats – Charlie Parker, Philly Joe Jones, and Doudou N’Diaye Rose – and one (If You Seek a Fox) is even a jab at his “least favorite TV news network.” (The track is quite good regardless of your feelings about Fox News.)
Under Hollenbeck’s leadership there is little showmanship or superfluous flourishes. Each musician plays his part – and plays it well – but is more focused on being part of the collective rather than a soloist. As a consequence, this is a recording that might not jump out at you on first listen. It is subtle, exhibiting a rare depth that may take some time to appreciate. But the investment will be well worth it. Highly recommended.
Bent Knee – Say So (2016)
Every once in a while, the ostensibly prog-rock / avant-jazz Cuneiform Records label comes out with something totally different. In 2013 it was Chrome Hoof, and three years later we have Bent Knee. This Boston-based six-piece art-rock band seamlessly blends genres across the spectrum – from pop to hard rock, to something resembling free-improv. Layered over the music are lyrics that describe a twisted, dark Americana.
Vocalist / keyboardist Courtney Swain has a strong presence throughout. While her inflections are reminiscent of Alanis Morrissette from time to time, she moves in her own direction. And she can sing – in a way that makes me think that if she were a contestant on one of those reality television singing contests, she would easily mop up the competition. Joining her on backing vocals is Jessica Kion, who also plays bass. Rounding out the group are Ben Levin on guitars, Chris Baum on violin, and Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth on drums. Session musicians contribute woodwinds and brass, which gives the compositions a thick, orchestral presence.
One of the more notable aspects of Say So goes beyond just the writing and playing – the production is modern and superb. Crisp and clear, you can easily pick out each instrumental voice, even as the dynamics vary up and down. The unique irony, though, is that the guitar, keyboards, and violin are often blended in a way that makes it hard to identify which is contributing to what. Vince Welch is credited with production and sound design, and appears to be a full-fledged band member.
Each of the tracks are moody in their own way, often beginning slowly and building to crescendo before returning to someplace near where they began. Favorites? Leak Water, with its strident guitar intro, detailed overlapping rhythms, orchestral keyboard and violin breaks, and slowly ascending vocals. Hands Up is another one, intelligently describing a longing for a (likely doomed) modern suburban life over infectious melodies and broken rhythms.
While catchy and appealing, if you listen carefully, this is not necessarily joyful music. But it explores uncomfortable emotional situations in a compelling fashion, and thus draws you in. Highly recommended, even if your usual cup of tea is further off the beaten track. There is a lot to like here.
Thumbscrew – Convallaria (2016)
Convallaria majalis is the scientific name for the lily of the valley, an attractive, sweet-smelling, yet highly-poisonous flowering plant. On this, their second album, Thumbscrew provides a similar juxtaposition – music that pays homage to the familiar and comfortable jazz tradition, then proceeds to transcend it in an avant-garde exploration.
Consisting of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Thumbscrew adopts the instrumental format of a power trio. The center-point of the group is undoubtedly Halvorson, who has done more than anyone for jazz guitar in the last ten years. Her playing, which has been well-document here and on other pages, is a herky-jerky, prickly amalgam of Joe Morris, Derek Bailey, and Sonny Sharrock. The fact that she can play with such odd meters and timbres, yet make her lines fit into the rhythmic structure provided by her bandmates, reflects extraordinary feel and intelligence on her part.
But one should not downplay the contributions of Formanek and Fujiwara, both veterans of creative music in their own right. The former has been a major contributor to the works of Tim Berne, and has played with Dave Douglas, Scott Fields, and Steve Swell amongst many others. Despite being a generation older than Halvorson and Fujiwara, Formanek is a formidable outside presence on this recording, playing notes up and down the bass, never resting. Fujiwara has settled into being a supple and powerful drummer, updating the jazz percussion styles of the 50’s and 60’s with a modern feel informed (but not limited) by rock music.
Convallaria is an eleven track set of short and mid-length tunes that provides all three members a chance to stretch out. On the opener, Cleome, Halvorson speed-picks with heavy distortion over a shifting base provided by Formanek and Fujiwara, before heading into deeper free-improv waters. Another notable performance is on Screaming Piha, an open ended composition with Halvorson using delays to multitrack fuzz guitar into a wall of sound, while her bandmates provide a slowly increasing tempo that ultimately blends into this wall. Tail of the Sad Dog features fractured rhythms over which Halvorson provides clearly-picked melodies combined with sounds formed by sliding her fingers up and down the fretboard. Fujiwara, in particular seems to go in his own direction on this track, leading the others with his urgent snare-work. On Spring Ahead, Formanek gives his bass a bowed workout while Halvorson stretches and bends notes.
It is no surprise, given the pedigree of its performers, that Convallaria is a strong album. Thumbscrew has something of an “it” factor, in that they are sailing out of sight of land, and yet their offerings are warm and enjoyable. A solid release of the year candidate.
Naima – Bye (2016)
Jazz-inflected Spanish threesome Naima returns with their fourth album, Bye. While the group’s choice of instrumentation (with Enrique Ruiz on piano and synths, Luis Torregrosa on drums, and Rafael Ramos Sania on bass) is not new, their approach to the piano trio is anything but conventional.
Naima does not shy away from comparisons to The Bad Plus, which is perhaps the most well-known piano trio of the last decade or so. And like that outfit, Naima gives a nod to the jazz tradition, but then departs for more adventurous waters. Nonetheless, Ruiz, Torregrosa, and Sania explore deeper oceans and harsher weather. While there is an element of playfulness to some of the nine tunes on Bye, there also is an underlying darkness as well. They go on to bridge tense atmospheres with tightly-coupled rhythms and catchy, yet angular, melodies. In addition, their use of synths adds a level of aggression and dissonance to the mix.
Content-wise, six of the tracks are originals, two with alternative takes included. Naima also covers Elliot Smith‘s Can’t Make a Sound, which is a highlight of the album, and Jaga Jazzist‘s Animal Chin.
The result of all this is a release with broad appeal – traditional jazzheads and fans of the avant-garde alike will find much to enjoy on Bye.
Guapo – Obscure Knowledge (2015)
UK-based Guapo has been kicking around for about 20 years, showing off their chops in various configurations and lineups. Obscure Knowledge features leader Dave Smith on drums, Kavus Torabi on guitar, Emmett Elvin on keyboards and synthesizers, and James Sedwards on bass. The album is arguably one long track, broken into three parts. The album title is from the writings of Aldous Huxley, a fitting reference for Guapo’s musical dystopia.
Taking their cues from post-rock, 70’s prog (especially Zeuhl and Krautrock), psychedelia, and avant-metal, Guapo provides a drone-ridden, power-trio plus keyboards approach. The group demonstrates restraint as themes slowly evolve, building and holding tension. For example, the first track begins with walls of keyboards, ascending riffs, and a driving rhythm section. But after several minutes, it morphs into an ominous keyboard / guitar motif, then a progressive rock oriented theme. The second track is a more atmospheric piece, laden by keyboards and interspersed with guitar effects. The final track, a 12-minute jam, features more emphasis on guitar and bass than the rest of the album.
Fans of Guapo’s previous releases will find much to like here. And for those intent on exploring the sounds of this group for the first time, Obscure Knowledge is an excellent place to start.
Schnellertollermeier – X (2015)
Schnellertollermeier, the namesake of guitarist Manuel Troller, bassist Andi Schnellmann, and drummer David Meier, move to the Cuneiform Records label for this, their third release. In it, this Swiss trio explore the jagged boundaries of progressive and math rock. Alternating between stop-on-a-dime rhythms and thoughtful ambiance, X provides a take on modern experimental music from musicians too young and demiurgic to care about artificial labels such as genre.
The 20-minute title track, for instance, could have been a product of Dillinger Escape Plan, but without metallic riffing and vocals. On the other hand, Backyard Lipstick, clocking in at just over 2 minutes, sets forth a rather unique combination of tribal rhythms, guitar effects, and whistling. Massacre du Printemps takes a different angle, with in-your-face staggered drum pounding and all instruments contributing to interlocking themes.
Schnellertollermeier can be likened to some of the aggressive prog rock / noise from Japan, such as Happy Family and Ruins, but with a distinctly Euro flavor. They are well-placed with other math-rock labelmates such as Ahleuchatistas and Upsilon Acrux. X is a worthy release for fans of these bands, or anyone looking for a new take on the power trio format.
Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP – Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost (2014)
In Rob Mazurek‘s extensive discography, it is difficult to find a release that isn’t a worthwhile listen. Indeed, most of his efforts, especially those of the last few years, are resoundingly excellent. Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost continues this trend.
The album, featuring Mazurek’s cohorts in Sao Paulo Underground and three new participants, is both a tribute to his mother, as well as a shamanistic ritual to mark her recent passing. Consisting of four tracks all around the 16-18 minute mark, the album offers a logical expansion to the recent Sao Paulo Underground sound. With the three additional musicians, who mostly contribute electronics, sax, and voices, the sextet includes layers and a density that Mazurek’s Brazilian trio hadn’t previously captured.
The album takes the listener on a journey of sorts, starting with Oh Mother (Angel’s Wings), featuring dense percussion, free improv over a repeating harmony, then a noisy freak out at the end. Return the Tides follows, and is powerfully themed, probably the most immediately appealing track. Let the Rain Fall Upwards includes something resembling backwards masking, as well as walls of electronics backing Mazurek’s cornet. Finally, Reverse the Lightning is a quieter piece, featuring the rabeca, a Brazilian fiddle. Not unlike the Sao Paulo Underground albums, it can be difficult to discern the synthesized sounds from the acoustic instruments.
Mazurek and company channel Electric Miles, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to make a recording that is cosmic, spiritual, raw, and powerful. Return the Tides depicts an emotionally chaotic trek from the anguish of loss to peace. One of Mazurek’s best efforts to date.
Happy Family – Minimal Gods (2014)
Happy Family emerged from Japan in the early 1990s, with several questionably-legitimate tapes of their live recordings making rounds amongst collectors. They were eventually signed to Cuneiform Records, and released two all-instrumental CDs on that label in 1995 and 1997. Afterward, they took a long hiatus before releasing this year’s Minimal Gods.
Age has not mellowed the band, which consists of Kenchi Morimoto on keyboards, Takahiro Izutani on guitar, Hidemi Ichikawa on bass, and Keiichi Nagase on drums. However, it may have changed their focus a bit. Twenty years ago, Happy Family was a Zeuhl-influenced heavy progressive rock group, with compositional aggression and chops to spare. Today, they maintain their intensity, but come across as in a fusion-inflected math rock vein, reminiscent of Battles, Don Caballero, and even The Dillinger Escape Plan.
Still, the strains of Magma, Ruins, and Heldon can be heard in the background. Many of the tracks on Minimal Gods are based on short themes that are repeated in various ways by each instrument. This is a compositional style that harkens to recent Present recordings, yet less overtly repetitive.
While not straying all that far from their formula of two decades ago, Happy Family continues to please with their combination of joyful power and dexterous passion.
Led Bib – The Good Egg (2014)
It is time to add to the annals of albums that can be classified as a short burst of energy. UK-based Led Bib has never been a group that overstays its welcome on any particular piece. But clocking in at 35-minutes, this live recording from February and July of 2013 has something to say, says it, then gracefully steps out of the way.
Led Bib has always resembled some variation of a progressive rock band playing jazz, or a jazz band playing progressive rock, and this release does not change that formula. The Good Egg features the group’s usual dual-horn attack, prominent bass and drums, and keyboards providing atmosphere. On the surface, Led Bib’s approach originates in well-trodden territory. An intricate bass line is laid down, the drums follow along adding accents of their own, and the horns provide when seems to be partially-composed, partially-improvised layers on top of that. But rarely has such a formula been done so well. The group fills each second with something new, and the tracks exhibit a level of energy that exceeds their already frantically-paced studio releases.
If anything, many albums are too long. Perhaps musicians feel like they need to fill out the 80 some-odd minutes of a CD rather than leaving some material on the cutting room floor. Led Bib gives creative jazz the Goldilocks treatment to great effect, and the result is one of their best offerings to date.
Chrome Hoof – Chrome Back Gold (2013)
Prog disco? Magma meets the dance floor? You’ve got to be kidding right?
This UK nine- or ten-piece outfit is led by two brothers, Leo Smee and Milo Smee. One is into progressive rock and metal, while the other produces techno and electronica. Chrome Hoof is their joint effort that covers these seemingly extreme corners of the musical spectrum, as well as a lot of space in between. The result is a diverse, yet catchy and appealing release.
Take the soul and funk side of Magma, combine with Bitches Brew era Miles, add in some Sun Ra along with King Crimson riffing, then view through the lens of Europop and you might scratch the surface of Chrome Black Gold. The first three tracks alone exemplify the breadth of this release. Enter the Drobe and When the Lightning Strikes might both be at home on Eloy‘s Metromania. On the other hand, Knopheria is for the dance floor, albeit one with guitars and psychedelic keyboards.
While diversity is usually a good thing, in and of itself diversity does not guarantee an enjoyable listening experience. However, Chrome Hoof manages to blend styles without making it sound like that was their only goal. Chrome Black Gold is a cohesive entry into both the sci-fi influenced progressive rock and the sci-fi influenced electronica genres. Each track is a series of familiar riffs and melodies, arranged in a new fashion to produce a new result. Too much fun.
Halvorson / Formanek / Fujiwara – Thumbscrew (2013)
Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, and Tomas Fujiwara are veterans of the New York creative jazz scene. This sort of “avant-supergroup” recording happens frequently enough that the results need to be very interesting to garner significant attention. But it should not be surprising that this trio’s output meets that threshold.
This, their debut album, features writing credits split equally between the three. However, their compositional approaches are so complementary and integrated that there are no abrupt stylistic changes from track to track. As expected, Formanek provides rubbery acoustic bass, Halvorson her clean and prickly guitar lines, and Fujiwara his insightful and angular drumming. While each participant is well-known for their improvisational skill, Thumbscrew was meant to let their writing shine.
And shine it does. The opening track, Cheap Knock Off, features riffing from Formanek and Fujiwara. Then Halvorson joins in with a spiky, electric lead, progresses to strummed chords, followed by her trademark noisy aggression. Fujiwara is so tight that he is easy to overlook, despite his busyness. After a few passes through Thumbscrew, I feel like I could listen to an album of just his drumming.
The more I listen to this offering, the more I like it. A spirited release.
São Paulo Underground – Beija Flors Velho E Sujo (2013)
Over the last few years, Chicago avant-jazz explorer Rob Mazurek has established himself as one of the most reliable and prolific leaders on the creative music scene. His group efforts include The Chicago Underground Duo / Trio / Quartet, Sound Is, Pulsar Quartet, Exploding Star Orchestra, the Rob Mazurek Octet, and (of course) São Paulo Underground.
The latter, consisting of Mazurek on cornet, harmonium and effects, Guilherme Granado on keyboards, synths, sampler and vocals, and Mauricio Takara on percussion, cavaquinho and electronics, released Beija Flors Velho E Sujo this summer. This is the group’s fourth album overall, and second with the current lineup.
Although a trio, São Paulo Underground provides a rich feel that could easily be attributed to a six or seven piece group. Mazurek leads most tracks on cornet, with thick keyboards from Granado and busy drumming from Takara backing him up. Other voices wend their way through the recording, including multitracked horns and effects that resemble an electric guitar. Despite the group’s use of modern technology in the form of samplers and electronics, there is a distinct analog resonance to Beija Flors Velho E Sujo. As a result, the group comes across as having an earthy electric-Miles / Sun Ra retro thing going on.
What makes São Paulo Underground stand out in Mazurek’s discography, and in avant-jazz as well, is the playful Latin vibe throughout. Some tracks, such as “The Love I Feel For You Is More Real Than Ever,” are downright tuneful and fun. But make no mistake – this is not a mainstream album. It is delightfully creative, noisy, and progressive.
Beija Flors Velho E Sujo is a great step forward for this already-accomplished trio, and easily makes my shortlist for album of the year.