AMN Reviews: Sabu Toyozumi / Mats Gustafsson – Hokusai (2020; NoBusiness Records)

Drummer Sabu Toyozumi is not very well known outside of a few circles. One of his many claims to fame is being the first non-American in the AACM. In addition to that, he has spent the last five decades touring, performing, and recording with a long list of improvisers from three continents. Mats Gustafsson, of course, is more of a household name (if people in your house are into firey free improv) and has played with a similarly long and varied roster of musicians. As far as I can tell, this meeting, recorded live in Japan in June of 2018, is the first between the two.

Toyozumi plays the drum kit as if it were a group of found objects. While he produces rolls and occasional rhythms, his use of space and sparse phrasings are more prevalent. Rather than fill the pieces on Hokusai with notes, he proceeds in a meandering and deliberate fashion. Gustafsson, perhaps influenced by this approach, is uncharacteristically minimal at times. He switches between sax and flute, eliciting angularities from both. When not in the background, Gustafsson offers up staccato runs, wails, and warblings. Among the five tracks, each musician has one dedicated to his solo playing. This further accentuates and complements their duets. The result is an album that is exploratory and mostly quiet, but with a few blasts here and there to make sure you are paying attention.

AMN Reviews: BRUIT ≤ – The Machine Is Burning And Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again (2021; Elusive Sound)

French post-rock / chamber-rock quartet BRUIT ≤ offers four tracks of dense cinematic walls and acoustic interludes on their new release, The Machine Is Burning And Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again. Consisting of an unusual lineup – Théophile Antolinos on electric and acoustic guitar, Luc Blanchot on cello, Julien Aoufi on drums, and Clément Libes on bass and violin – the group manages to carve out a niche between rock, classical, and drone that is both unusual and compelling.

Despite the stated instrumentation above, there seems to be a distinct synth, keyboard, or bass pedal presence as well, adding to BRUIT ≤’s over-the-top, thick electric guitar chording. Coupled with cello/violin drones, themes, and motifs, these elements sum to powerful earth-shaking crescendos, with details that can best be appreciated when the volume is high. Even so, there are several passages where Antolinos switches to acoustic and is frequently accompanied by inobtrusive spoken-word lyrics (French or English) when he does. These more introspective moments are largely melancholy and subtly contrapuntal with layered melodies that slowly build to further high points.

The Machine Is Burning And Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again will be out digitally on April 2, and shortly thereafter on vinyl. This is a prime example of finely-crafted orchestral rock. BRUIT ≤ nailed it.

AMN Reviews: Sam Rivers Quartet – Braids [No Business Records NBCD 138]

It was April, 1979, in the tiny room upstairs at dc space, the long-gone—it’s now a Starbucks, of all things—venue for adventurous groups like the Sam Rivers Quartet, which was playing that night. It was an incandescent performance consisting of one long, intensely-played set. I was there, and still remember it vividly more than forty years later. A month after they played dc space the quartet was in Europe; their concert in Hamburg, Germany from 15 May is documented on Braids, the fourth installment in No Business Records’ extraordinary Sam Rivers Archive Project.

By 1979, Rivers had expanded the trio format he used in the mid-1970s to a quartet; bassist Dave Holland, doubling on cello, was still with him, but Thurman Barker had replaced Barry Altschul on drums, and Joe Daley, playing tuba and euphonium, was added as the fourth member. The double bass-tuba pairing was an unusual one, but even with its bias toward the lower end of the sound spectrum, the group could move nimbly and with a clarity of line, as the Hamburg recording shows.

The album consists of two tracks, the first of which ends in a fade; presumably, both are from the same set, part of which is missing. The music opens with Rivers on tenor in the midst of a collective polyphony that gradually settles into a relaxed groove led by Holland, and culminates in an intense, very fast swing. If the first track deals in high-energy playing, the second, longer track shows the group’s mastery of nuanced textural playing. Barker opens it with a drum solo, which segues into Rivers on solo piano. Over the course of the thirty-plus minutes, the texture undergoes constant changes, with voices being added and subtracted in various combinations and all four players leaving ample space for each other. Particularly arresting are duets for Rivers’ flute, first with Holland on bowed bass and then with Daley on tuba. This clearly was a group that could make the unlikeliest-seeming instrumental combinations work beautifully and naturally.
Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Arturo Parra – Parr(A)cousmatique (2002; empreintes DIGITALes)

This album was a grand experiment that went exceedingly…right!  As the story goes, classical guitarist Parra (and a very accomplished one at that as this album ably shows) approached five Acousmatic composers and asked them to create a work for which he would then mix himself in creating a hybrid piece.  With the exception of D’or et de lumiére where he partnered with fellow Acousmanaught Mauricio Bejarano, the partnerships with Dhomont, Gobeil and Normandeau were also recorded as stand alone pieces within their own catalog and can be heard on other records.  The Stéphane Roy piece seems to have been recorded specifically for this release.

Full disclosure, when I bought this record about 15 years ago, I didn’t bother learning about how it came into being, I just thought it was really interesting to hear (what I thought was) an electronically processed classical guitar.  It was something very new and fresh sounding to me back then because it had all the qualities I was looking for in an Acousmatic record.  Dramatic, mysterious sounds rushing inwards, backwards, whirling all around the sound stage that I mistakenly thought were all processed from the classical guitar as the only sound source.  There is a point to me mentioning this, which I’ll get to in a second…but I had no idea he was working with some of the preeminent sound pioneers of the time.

Well obviously I was (more than a) tad wrong here.  The point of all this being…Parra inserted himself over the Acousmatic backdrop in such a natural, organic way that my ears were led to believe that everything being heard was coming from one source, his guitar.  Fast forward to now…remembering how excellent this album was I decided to write about it, which lead me to the liner notes.  I was completely taken off guard when I found out who his collaborators were. Stéphane Roy, Francis Dhomont, Gilles Gobeil, Robert Normandeau, and the above-mentioned Bejarano, well Mr. Parra sure knows how to pick em, right?  The first four are very highly regarded in the Canadian corner of the field and, while I was not familiar with Bejarano, judging from his contribution I think I probably should be.

Knowing now the “truth” of this album, my regard for it has GREATLY increased.  I’m now listening to it in a different light, with a different mindset.  First of all, I’m amazed at how Parra must have composed his part over the tape.  Careful listening reveals how he must have storyboarded everything out.  I now hear the naked, unprocessed, Spanish-tinged acoustic guitar having a dialog with the manipulated taped sounds.  Not only is his playing reactive, but it’s also proactive.  It belongs there.  He never overpowers the Acousmatic sounds, instead the tape and guitar are very equal partners.  I think the whole is equal, if not greater than the parts here.  Given that some of these composers also used these pieces as stand-alone tracks on their own records, I realize I’m giving Parra very high praise.  Deservedly so in my opinion.

Additionally, Parra’s playing skills are exemplary.  Speed demon flamenco runs are everywhere, extended techniques like scraping, general guitar neck torture and “sick” notes are just where they need to be and totally compliment the taped portion.  Everything he does is in service to his partners, and visa versa…the whole thing just works perfectly.

Kicking off the album is La basilique fantome (The phantom basilica) which is the combo with Stéphane Roy.  Roy spins up some ghostly textures that cues some elegantly played Spanish guitar figures.  Nothing too dark and foreboding here, but just enough quiet unease and tension to create the mood the title suggests.  The piece ends with Roy ratcheting up the intensity quite a bit with a nearly overpowering drone prompting some dynamically equal guitar work from Parra, brilliant all the way through!

The second piece, D’or et de lumiére (Gold and light)is a pairing with Mauricio Bejarano.  Bejarano’s taped input is probably the most abstract of all the works on this album, the sounds he uses are varied and random.  Parra’s ability to seamlessly meld his playing into this tapestry is quite the testament to not only his playing talent but his imagination as well.  This piece is full of clicks, scrapes, extended guitar techniques, and micro-sounds.  Parts are quite pastoral and very melodic only to be subsumed into a maelstrom of avant-noise.  Close and numerous listens will pay off immensely. 

Next we have the dazzling Sol y sombra…L’espace des spectres (Sun and shadow…Ghosts over the ring) with Francis Dhomont.  As if things weren’t’ interesting enough, a new level is reached here.  I find it difficult to dissect each composer’s contribution in isolation, instead, taken as a whole…this piece just soars on wings of pure energy.  I hate to resort to cheesy metaphors but every time I hear this it’s like holding on for dear life as your magic carpet takes flight over a technicolor infused psychotropic Catalonian landscape.  Strap in, close your eyes and try not to freak out…sorry, no refunds.

Soledad (Solitude) with Gilles Gobeil allows you to catch your breath, but only for a little while because you soon realize that you are in a darker realm.  A possible soundtrack for Willian Hope Hodgson’s weird fiction novel The Night Land may be a good analog here.  Silence is used to good effect on this piece, and when Gobeil breaks it with his “ opening of the crypt” sonics, images of a haunted landscape are unavoidable.  At points, the silence gives way to passages of pure pandemonium which Parra wildly solos over creating a seemingly unstoppable wall of dark energy.

All this is a great segue to the final tour de force, L’envers du temps (The other side of time) with Robert Normandeau.  The dread-filled silence in the previous piece gives way to a veritable tornado of studio processed sonorities and inventive guitar heroics from Parra.  This piece also appears on Normandeau’s own album Figures (under the original name Ellipse) of which you can see my previous review here.   L’envers du temps acts as an all-out sprint to the finish line for this excellent album and always leaves a smile on my face.  High energy doesn’t even begin to describe it as Parra seems to be reaching outside of himself to muster every ounce of energy he has to keep pace with the tape.  I have to mention the final 15 seconds of this piece acts as a bolded exclamation mark just to drive it all home.

Parr(A)cousmatique works for me on all levels.  In this age of collaboration, I would love to see empreintes DIGITALes organize more partnerships like this culled from their huge roster of artists.  Unfortunately I was unable to find any suitable links to hear the full versions of these pieces but one can hear samples at the electrocd site.  This album receives a table pounding recommendation from me, not just for Acousmatic music fans but lovers of guitar as well. 

Mike Eisenberg

AMN Reviews: Thumbscrew – Never is Enough (2021; Cuneiform Records)

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.

Never is Enough comes out this Friday. Do not hesitate.

AMN Reviews: Tom Swafford & Zachary Swanson – Scythe Paths Through the Nettles [Bandcamp]

The music on Scythe Paths Through the Nettles, an album of free improvisations for violin and double bass, is unlike much freely improvised music for strings. Violinist Tom Swafford and double bassist Zachary Swanson play with a strong bias toward incorporating elements of song, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, into improvisations that are free-ranging yet remain grounded in more traditional forms of music. This isn’t surprising, given that the two met while playing together in an old-time string band. There’s some of the old-time feel to Swafford’s sound—even given some passing episodes of extended technique, his playing shows its roots in fiddling as well as in jazz. Swanson mostly plays a robust pizzicato, although he switches to bow on Spokeshave, Rasp, and Scraper for chording as well as single lines, and on Shoulder Yoke and Harrow Down the Clouds, the most “avant” of the duets. On pieces like By the Fork and the Flail, with its sublimating swing and walking basslines, Swafford and Swanson make explicit contact with jazz; Dark Carlyle and Rear Brake Caliper hint at a chord progression.

Scythe Paths Through the Nettles was recorded in a warehouse in Brooklyn and possibly as a result, its sound quality is on the raw side. Still, it’s an enjoyable listen and presents a unique perspective on unpremeditated music.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mariel Roberts – Armament (2021; Figureight Records)

Armament is the third solo cello album from Mariel Roberts, and a follow-up to 2017’s Cartography. Writing about her music is a challenge, as she stretches the notions of what sounds her instrument should and can be used to make. Over four tracks varying in length from about five minutes to over seventeen, Roberts employs traditional bowing and plucking, extended techniques, and electronic processing to create a multi-layered set.

Indeed, it is not initially apparent that this is even a solo cello release. Often her manual playing takes a backing role to waves of noise walls. Melody gives way to texture and abstract forms, even as one might be able to identify a few individual notes that are either following a loose pattern or freely improvised. She is percussive, using the body of the cello to create impacts that blend into scraping, scratching, and squeaking. Accompanying these are loops and echoes, long-held notes, and dense multi-tracked drones.

But what is most compelling about Armament is how well it works as a whole. Recorded in 2019, there is an underlying tension that captures our pre-pandemic malaise and anxiety. Her more aggressive playing parallels that of current events, in an expository rather than approving fashion. In her discordance, Roberts evokes a world that has gone wrong – perhaps an unintentional precursor to the lost year of 2020.

AMN Reviews: Dead Space Chamber Music – Hagioscope Obscura (2020; Bandcamp)

I first came across UK-based Dead Space Chamber Music on the Yig compilation. Intrigued, I explored their catalog a bit and settled on this album. Subtitled “DSCM lockdown live streams”, Hagioscope Obscura was recorded and released last year during March and June, as the pandemic was in full force. According to the group, this set of recordings is all new and unreleased material.

The composition of said group is Tom Bush on electric guitar and treatments, Liz Paxton on cello, Katie Murt on drums and percussion, and Ellen Southern on voice, psaltery, live sound textures, and tambourine. Their approach is hard to describe because it spans several subgenres: medieval music, dark ambient, discordant textural improv, electroacoustic, and probably a couple more. Indeed, the credited influences on these two long tracks include Guillaume de Machaut, Edgard Varèse, Hildegard von Bingen, Sycamore Trees as performed by Jimmy Scott, as well as several traditional, devotional, and love songs.

Bush, Paxton, and Murt vary between unstructured improvisation and more orderly approaches, while Southern’s voice is plaintive, wailing, and evocative. Their music is what might result if Dead Can Dance went to hell and then came back possessed with a need to make walls of sound. The melodies are often sparse and the rhythms frequently difficult to discern even when they exist; instead, the emphasis is on long-held notes, drones, and other extemporaneous elements. They play atmospherically, each contributing in a mostly-subdued fashion to the overall effort. Exceptions occur, however, when Southern takes on one of the covered songs and the group strays closer to conventionality (even fuzzed out riffing from Bush). Nonetheless, the overall impression that Hagioscope Obscura leaves upon the listener is one of noisy ambiance and dread. This is not to say that moments of joy do not emerge from time to time.

This is a compelling and unclassifiable recording from a very intriguing group. Thumbs way up.

AMN Reviews: Hilyard – Division Cycle (2021; Cryo Chamber)

(Bryan) Hilyard offers up this album of deep and slow-moving drones, waves, and lush atmospheres. He has been making this form of dark ambient for the better part of a decade, and Division Cycle is his 12th or so release. Hilyard begins this journey in a style that is not unduly harsh, with plenty of airy layers. But by the third track, Of Hatred and Wrath, an ominous presence begins to rear its head in the form of background patterns that resemble animal noises. Feed the Earth continues down this path with chants and vocalizations, evoking a primeval or alien landscape. The finale, To the Warmth of Pyres, is a collaboration with fellow dark ambient artists Dronny Darko and ProtoU. It includes subtle echoing elements over a mound of drones, some with voice-like characteristics. In a sense, this represents a return to the initial structure of the album, coming a sonic full circle.

AMN Reviews: Nate Wooley / Liudas Mockūnas / Barry Guy / Arkadijus Gotesmanas – NOX (2020; NoBusiness Records)

There is something about Nate Wooley recordings – they exhibit a broad intentionality even if the pieces therein appear to be freely improvised. Within ostensibly unstructured passages, meta-patterns slowly emerge that make you question how much of the music was truly spontaneous. Here, he is joined by the legendary bassist Barry Guy, as well as Arkadijus Gotesmanas on drums and percussion and Liudas Mockūnas on clarinet and sax. Three lengthy pieces on NOX explore several dimensions of guided improvisation.

At first blush, the album is open, noisy, and full of extended techniques. There is no traditional sense of melody. Instead, all four musicians provide bursts of rough and discordant energy as a quartet as well as in subsets thereof. Wooley’s playing is gritty and angular, carefully crafting sound envelopes and pulses. Mockūnas forms more lilting or circular contributions in addition to staccato runs of notes. In parallel to this, Guy explores his bass in a characteristically unconventional fashion, essentially soloing through most of the recording. Gotesmanas drums in a rhythmless free-jazz style, with little repetition or predictability. As an example of how this is put together, Multa Nox, the second track, is an interesting juxtaposition of sparser moments and jerky, stumbling progressions.

In short, this is forward music – both aggressive and restrained. Occasionally this presents itself as harsh wailing, but those moments are outnumbered by more overtly cerebral passages. Like the fabric of the universe in quantum theory, NOX is continuously ripping itself apart and putting itself back together on the particle level. Well done indeed.