AMN Reviews: Dana Jessen – Winter Chapel [Carrier Records 057]

Winter Chapel, an album of solo performances by new music bassoonist Dana Jessen, announces itself with a shakuahchi-like, upper register fluctuation of sound. This opening gives some idea of the rest of the music to follow on this stunning meeting of contemporary bassoon technique and physical architecture. The album was recorded this past January in Fairchild Chapel at Oberlin, where Jessen teaches contemporary music and improvisation. Jessen’s previous solo release, Carve, demonstrated the versatility of the solo bassoon; Winter Chapel continues in that vein by pushing the instrument further out to the edges of its possibilities, aided and augmented by the deeply resonant surroundings of the performance space. The space in fact becomes something of a duet partner, particularly on Part Two, where its reverberations double Jessen’s furiously cascading sheets of sound; the room not only creates the impression of a second instrument playing but also lends the bassoon’s sound the acerbic edge of a hard-played, baritone saxophone. The more reflective Part Four is an essay in phrasing and dynamics, its languidly-unspooled lines allowed to echo and die away into a thick silence. The long improvisation of Part Five, which includes delicate passages of conventional technique alongside of aggressively dense forays into extended technique, captures the spirit of the entire album in miniature. A remarkable album of disruptive beauty.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Randal Collier-Ford – Advent (2020; Cryo Chamber)

Just when you think that you have a grasp on the expanse of dark ambient music, another artist comes to your attention. Such an artist might not only have a new album out, but also a long discography built up over the years. With 30-plus albums from the last decade, Seattle-based Randal Collier-Ford fits this description.

Advent, nonetheless, goes beyond the standard fare. Not only does it feature the expected ominous drones and waves, but also strings, vocalizations, and clever use of percussion across its three long tracks. The combination of these elements is not only spacious but also post-industrial. Further, there are numerous clear themes that repeat enough to recognizable without becoming tedious.

The strings are textural and the voices chant rather than sing. Indeed, the album is intended to tell a science-fiction story, with echoing mechanical processes hosting weird organic life forms. These sounds get increasingly haunting, as the final track, The Second Wound, includes a plaintive and forbidding piano theme that evolves into martial drumming before fading to silence.

AMN Reviews: counter)induction – Against Method [New Focus Recordings FCR278]

The chamber ensemble counter)induction, a group that has dedicated itself to the performance of new music since it came on the scene at the end of the last century, takes its name from a concept in philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s classic work Against Method, which is also the title of their latest album. Counterinduction, roughly, is a critical method of opposing a theory or concept with a counterpart drawn from outside of the target theory’s ordinary frame of reference. In practical terms it entails an embrace of critical pluralism, which seems to have been the concrete inspiration counter)induction took from it. With its selection of six diverse works by just as many composers, Against Method the album neatly encapsulates the group’s musical pluralism.

The opening track, Douglas Boyce’s The Hunt by Night, is a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano that uncoils with a spry, loping energy that recalls the spirit of Les Six. It’s an engaging lead-in, and oddly, perhaps the least “contemporary” sounding of the works represented. Kyle Bartlett’s Before for guitar, bass clarinet and cello follows and changes the atmosphere dramatically. In contrast to The Hunt by Night’s melodic continuity, Before features bursts of fragmentary lines and long tones, and makes generous use of unpitched sounds. Ein Kleines Volkslied by Alvin Singleton, originally commissioned by Bang on a Can, draws on elements of rock and jazz—Dan Lippel’s distorted electric guitar chords and Randall Zigler’s pizzicato basslines add just the right flavor—and includes a fine feature for vibraphone at its center. Jessica Meyer’s Forgiveness, the only piece on the album incorporating electronics, uses a loop pedal to transform a hymn-like solo performance by bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland into an accumulating, virtual reed ensemble. In another abrupt contrast of styles, Forgiveness is followed by Ryan Streber’s neoclassical Piano Quartet—a lushly beautiful, harmonically rich piece. The album closes with Argentinian composer Diego Tedesco’s Scherzo for guitar, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. Although billed as a musical joke—and the repeated motif of descending chromatic lines does sound like a bagful of broken toys falling down a flight of stairs—the piece makes sophisticated use of pizzicato textures from the guitar and other strings.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Brooklyn Raga Massive – In D (2020; Bandcamp)

Brooklyn Raga Massive is a collective with rotating members that focuses on the performance and recording of Indian classical music. Their claim to fame so far is undoubtedly their recording of Terry Riley’s In C (reviewed here), which was given the seal of approval by Riley himself. In fact, Riley liked it so much that he invited the group to California so that he could write and record a new piece with them. This didn’t work out, unfortunately, and instead the Massive’s artistic directors wrote a piece of music that they would have liked Riley to have written for them. From this, In D was born.

While their take on In C could be described as Riley’s composition being adapted to an Indian classical ensemble, In D is the converse – Indian classical music written in the style of Riley’s composition. It was recorded just three months ago under socially-distanced constraints and features 24 musicians including guitarist Gyan Riley, Terry’s son. The instrumentation also includes sitar, bansuri, violin, cello, mandolin, clarinet, oud, bass, tabla, conga, frame drums, timpani, and harp.

In substance, the three pieces follow the cell-based approach of In C but are more varied. There are mournful vocals, sparsely-populated parts, and more room for improvisation. But the overall energy level and layered density remain. Indeed, each track ebbs and flows, and yet has information-rich moments in which a large portion of the ensemble simultaneously present their respective contributions. The result is a polyphonic mix in which there are several stacked planes of themes and drones over lilting rhythms.

As an album that was almost never made, In D beat the odds. And that’s a wonderful thing.

AMN Reviews: Lords of the Drift – The Arecibo Message (2020; Stay Gold Records)

In short, if you like Sunn O))) and early Tangerine Dream, you should probably give a moment to the debut from Lords of the Drift. A 30-minute, single-track release, The Arecibo Message combines drone and doom metal with sequenced rhythms and keyboards for a heavy, atmospheric, and plodding journey through the outer reaches of space.

Consisting of guitarists Tomo Milicevic and Tim Showalter, guitarist/keyboardist Arjan Miranda, and bassist David Bason, this group lays down ponderous walls of distorted riffs. In addition to these overwhelming elements, short guitar and keyboard motifs, as well as further chording, flit around in the background. Thus, the album is suitable for detailed listening at high volume.

The Arecibo Message is divided into three movements. The first comprises the aforementioned dense walled riffs. The second sends the guitars the background and replaces them with keyboard textures over a bassy rumble. The third introduces sequenced patterns that support more spacious and varied chording structures over a faster tempo. In view of these characteristics, if you like your drones more than a little heavy with a few twinges of psychedelia and the Berlin School, don’t hesitate.

AMN Reviews: Sonata Islands Kommandoh – Quasar Burning Bright (2020; Chant Records)

Every so often an album comes along that just hits the spot – it might be weird and diverse, but also strangely familiar. Quasar Burning Bright from Sonata Islands Kommandoh fits that bill. Led by Italian flutist and composer, Emilio Galante, the band consists of him along with Giovanni Venosta on keyboards and vocals, Alberto N. A. Turra on guitar, and Stefano Grasso on drums.

The group’s name invokes the French band Magma, and there certainly are some Zeuhl elements to be heard. In fact, the previous Sonata Islands Kommandoh release was a jazz take on Magma. But Galante mixes up the influences of Vander and company with electronics, glitch, improvisation, and experimentation. The writing is not overtly complex as much as it is unusual. The rhythmic structure comprises repeating themes that vary in pitch and angularity. Flutes take a leading role over these as well within tracks that are synth-driven and occasionally funky to the point of being almost danceable. There is no shortage of groove.

The album wraps up with a 12-minute piece, It Ain’t Necessarily So, that is perhaps the most experimental and Magma-influenced of the bunch. It features a choir, cosmic synths, and spacious orchestration of flute, keys, and drums. It puts a strange and beautiful ending on a compellingly oddball offering.

AMN Reviews: A Love Supreme Electric – A Love Supreme and Meditations (2020; Cuneiform Records)

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.

AMN Reviews: George Kokkinaris – New Solo Double Bass Works by Greek Composers [s/r]

Like many double bassists working in the field of contemporary music, George Kokkinaris, a Greek bassist currently in Berlin, specializes in solo performances centered on the extraordinarily rich range of sounds, both conventional and otherwise, that the instrument can produce. And as New Solo Double Bass Works by Greek Composers demonstrates, Kokkinaris approaches this common endeavor with a voice that is recognizably his own.

New Solo Double Bass Works contains two pieces, one each from two contemporary Greek composers. The first is Study in Four Parts for Solo Double Bass (2019) by Niki Krasaki, herself a double bassist as well as a composer. The four studies are finely etched miniatures ranging in length from just over one minute to just under two-and-a-half minutes. Except for brief glissandi of harmonics at the end of the first part and beginning of the fourth part, as well as a short episode of sul ponticello bowing in the fourth part, the Study is built around lyrical motifs, some of which recur in variations at different points in the collective work, and conventional techniques. Much of the playing takes place in the lower registers, bringing out the gravitas of the instrument’s voice. It’s a well-chosen region for Kokkinaris, who has a robust low-register attack that dramatizes the grainy sound of the bow pulling across the strings.

The second piece is Alexis Porfiriadis’ Hush Little Baby for Speaking Contrabassist, also from 2019, the nearly twenty-minute length of which contrasts with the brevity of Krasaki’s suite of miniatures. Porfiriadis’ composition, an anguished commemoration of the deaths of children attempting to migrate to Europe, draws on Kokkinaris’ experience performing mixed media work involving acting and the spoken word. The score is organized around a set of extended techniques that come into play throughout the performance. This often-intense piece is as demanding to play as it is to hear; Kokkinaris’ realization is accomplished with the gestural rigor and emotional urgency that it requires.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley – Being Astral And All Registers / Power Of Two (2020; Discus Music)

While piano / drum pairings are not that uncommon, Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley practically wrote the book on how to do so with frenetic energy to spare. They collaborated for nearly 30 years, quite frequently as a duo in the early 2000’s. This 2002 recording, from the personal archives of Oxley and apparently unreleased until now, has both in rare form.

Taylor’s percussive style dovetails nicely with Oxley’s jagged rhythms and staggered improvisations. In particular, Taylor’s lines resemble those of a player piano at speed, while Oxley’s cymbal-heavy, hammering approach could easily be mistaken for two or three percussionists. The pair engage in a feverish dialog which rarely lets up across the 33 minutes of Being Astral And All Registers. These relentless walls of notes are complex, manic, and pure joy. Power Of Two slows down and takes a more textural angle, at least during the initial part of its 26 minutes, with more space in Taylor’s powerful chording and Oxley somewhat restrained. Nonetheless, these two cannot hold themselves back and the piece progresses into an endless array of angular and clustered patterns.

Notably, Taylor was in his early 70’s when these performances were recorded, and Oxley was only about a decade younger. But they play with the energy and drive of musicians half their age. Indeed, this workout would give anyone a challenge, including the listener.

AMN Reviews: DeathOrchestra – Symphony of Death (2020; Bandcamp)

I’ll admit to having a soft spot for orchestral heavy metal when done right. Earlier this year, we had a notable release from Triptykon with the Metropole Orkest, as just one example. I’ll also confess to a fondness for Nightwish’s instrumental variations that incorporate an orchestra. But not all such pairings are as successful.

DeathOrchestra is Russian metal band Buicide (two guitars, bass, and drums) with the Olympic Symphony Orchestra. Symphony of Death is a set of reimagined covers of the pioneering U.S. band Death that were recorded live in May 2019. Death was a thrash metal band that arguably hit its peak in the early 1990’s with Human and Individual Thought Patterns. Both albums exhibit rhythmically-sophisticated songwriting and are best thought of as progressive or technical metal rather than any other category. But Symphony of Death‘s selection of seven tracks spans the band’s career.

In any event, DeathOrchestra slows these pieces down a bit, eliminates the vocals, and rearranges them for metal band plus orchestra. Thus, the heavy riffing, speed picking, and disciplined soloing of Buicide are at the forefront. The Olympic Symphony Orchestra is mostly in the background, with string and horn sections either doubling or accentuating the guitars. High points include the ponderous main theme of Spirit Crusher along with its rapid-fire runs. Zero Tolerance is also strangely compelling with majestic violin sawing that borders on the bombastic (but in the best possible way).

Admittedly, this release is not particularly avant, but it is an example of two musical styles being blended in a creative and satisfying fashion. Thus, it gets two thumbs way up.