Yiorgis Sakellariou’s Nympholepsy is a portrait in sound of the historical ghosts inhabiting the ruins of Ancient Messene, a city on the Greek peninsula of The Peloponnese. Over the centuries, the site saw several waves of settlement and conquest, of building, destruction and reconstruction, beginning with foundation by the Achaeans and culminating with the city’s reestablishment in 369 BCE after the defeat of Sparta by Thebes at Leuctra. Much more recently–in 2018–the ruins of Ancient Messene were the focus of a Tuned City event in which a number of sound artists were commissioned to explore the themes of place and memory and their implications for the situated nature of listening. Sakellariou was one of the artists invited to participate; Nympholepsy is the work that resulted.
The audio interpretation of an ancient city would seem to be a natural fit for Sakellariou. Trained as an ethnomusicologist and active since the early 2000s as a composer of electronic music and a field recordist, Sakellariou has produced a body of work largely concerned with ferreting out and disclosing the networks of association that tie together an environment and the listeners situated within it. For Nympholepsy he took field recordings of Ancient Messene and combined them with manipulated recordings of the voice of Savina Yannetou, a Greek vocalist as conversant with early music as she is with contemporary improvisation. Sakellariou alters the sound of Yannetou’s voice artfully, changing its pitch and timbre, setting up rhythmic patterns and blocks of sound, and occasionally stripping it down to traces of its grain with the underlying breath exposed. Structurally, the twenty-three minute-long piece is a work of accumulation and densification as Sakellariou adds layers of sound elements and pressures them into thickening masses—an especially appropriate response to a place that itself was the product of an accretion of peoples and their material cultures over long periods of time.
Insect Ark is one project of many from polymath Dana Schechter. The Vanishing, her third release under this moniker, features Schechter on bass guitar, lap steel, electronics, and synths, while Andy Patterson takes on drumming duties. Collectively, they produce a compelling all-instrumental release that lands somewhere between metal and King Crimson inflected prog rock, with a sprinkling of doom, psychedelia, and post-rock. More obscure comparisons might include Catatonic Effigy and Warren Schoenbright.
Regardless of influences or loose categorizations, Insect Ark gives us six heavy, plodding ruminations. Despite being a duo, Schechter’s multi-instrumentalism and liberal use of overdubs results in The Vanishing having a think, dense sound. Anchored by heavy riffs and pounding rhythms, the lap steel adds a melancholic twang while the synths flesh out this dark atmosphere. Toward the second half of the album, the pace slows and comes across as being more open and improvised. The emphasis switches to dissonant textures, and the mood combines walls of sound into something resembling a symphonic approach.
Ultimately, Insect Ark is a heavy rock band that employs unusual instrumentation and solid writing to great effect. The Vanishing hits the shelves on February 28.
From its 18th century origins until today, the string quartet has undergone a continuous process of change. One of the more interesting and recent of these changes is the string quartet playing freely improvised, often texturally or timbrally focused music. Europe’s Quatuor BRAC is exemplary of the type; a fine new quartet, made up of highly skilled improvisational musicians from Portugal and Germany, brings its own voice to this solid, yet still young, tradition.
The group, which consists of Portuguese-born, Berlin-based cellist Guilherme Rodrigues; Rodrigues’ father Ernesto on viola; and Berliners Dietrich Petzold on violin and viola and Jan Roder on double bass, recorded Get Your Own Picture in Berlin in October 2018. The inclusion of a double bass makes the ensemble’s configuration unconventional—a string quartet ordinarily includes two violins, viola and cello—but not unique. Quatuor BRAC, for example, also includes a double bass. The occasional substitution of a second viola for violin represents a further break with the string quartet’s traditional instrumentation, but it also helps give the group a distinctive sound of its own.
The trio of the two Rodrigueses and Petzold had already formed a musical partnership, having recorded together previously and released three albums that also appear on the Creative Sources label. Roder thus joins a group already fairly well integrated—and one in which his voice seamlessly blends.
As with traditional string quartets line, and especially the complexities of multiple lines interacting, is the focus, but the Rodrigueses, Petzold, and Roder take this traditional focus and subject it to a particularly creative twisting and distortion that decenters and pushes it to the edges of recognizability. The four also embellish their lines with episodes of purely timbral sounds, the effect of which is to add nuance to what is essentially pitch-driven music. Further adding nuance and affective force is the group’s meticulous and carefully calibrated attention to textural density and overall dynamics.
One of many 2019 releases from our “to review” queue, Chimaera by Signe Emmeluth’s Amoeba is a fresh and compelling take on structured improvisation. Consisting of Emmeluth on alto sax, Christian Balvig on piano, Karl Bjorå on electric guitar, and Ole Mofjell on drums, this outside offering explores a variety of textures across eight tracks.
While led by Emmeluth, who also takes composition credit, the group is truly a joint venture with all four members having space in which to express themselves. Emmeluth’s writing is as unusual as her labyrinthine sax lines and her occasional lengthy wails. She doesn’t solo as much as present off-kilter melodies and bursts of notes. Thus, the pieces exhibit a playful disjointedness with plenty of start/stop moments and artful use of space.
Balvig’s piano playing is forceful and percussive, with generous doses of staccato chording and classically-influenced rolling melodies. Mofjell is an effective drummer who makes extensive use of cymbals and snare, and rarely falls back on anything resembling a steady beat. But perhaps one of the more notable efforts on Chimaera comes from Bjorå, who uses extended techniques and spiky notes throughout. His scraping, rattling, jangling, and pitch-bending is non-stop and meshes well with Emmeluth’s fragmentary approach.
The quartet refrains from going all out on each track, and instead takes the album in more subtle and experimental directions. The more slowly-paced pieces are introspective, almost ballad-like, and almost hide Emmeluth’s knotty non-comformity. The result is a solid and charming release that grows in stature with each listen.
Midwest natives Jakob Heinemann (bassist from Chicago), Devin Drobka (drummer from Milwaukee), and Matt Blair (playing Fender Rhodes and electronics, and from Minneapolis) recorded a live Chicago performance in 2018. The two long tracks of Post Rock Lately are from this show. While the album is their first release as a group, they have performed together since 2012.
Despite its title, Post Rock Lately has little to do with the post-rock genre. Instead, it is a prime example of new-breed free improvisation that is informed by rock and other styles. In fact, this nuance would be lost if one only listens to the first few minutes or so of the 44-minute Swing Tune 1. Not a swing tune at all, it opens with disjointed and slow-moving, open-ended improv with generous use of extended techniques. But 20 percent of the way into this piece we find Heinemann playing an adventurous yet structured rhythm, Drobka backing that up with exploratory percussion, and Blair slowly transitioning from scratchy electronics to dirty chords on his Rhodes. The trio creates a thick sound with non-stop rhythmic patterns and relentless keyboard work that builds walls of sound rather than traditional solos. The use of repetition in this otherwise extemporaneous outing is both retro and refreshing. At points, the contributions of all three members blend together into a dense mass of noise (or was processed in that fashion) from which you can barely discern some bowed bass or cymbal strikes.
Following this epic-length excursion is the relatively-short, self-titled Post Rock Lately. More than a coda, this piece features a mix of slow themes and distorted chords on the Fender accompanied by manic percussion. The bass work is subtle – more structural than harmonic.
With this release, Heinemann, Drobka, and Blair have produced an unusual and compelling genre-smashing set. And in doing so, they are moving improvisation foward. This isn’t free jazz, it isn’t a keyboard-led power trio, it isn’t pure noise. Post Rock Lately is its own unique animal.
Fulmedesh is the duo of Mariela Arzadun (Arp Odyssey, Volca bass, guitar, field recordings, and poems) and Pan y Rosas label head Keith Helt (guitar, pedals, flute, keyboard, drums, computer, and poems). Caracoles de una Ciudad Enterrada is a truly long-distance collaboration, with Arzadun in Buenos Aires and Helt in Chicago. Together, they offer a mash-up of styles and techniques, with acoustic instruments, field recordings, waves of gritty synth, and spoken word elements.
To that point, Forced Landing on the Stomach of a Turtle features a strong sequenced synth line, a repeated background poem, light percussion, and various other effects and samples. In contrast, Pájaros Cantan Pulsos Espirales overlays processed voices, a subtle beat, and occasional sweeping synths.
Arzadun and Helt’s style of improvisation is not free – each piece has a rough structure and an ordering of events. Despite these core forms, they leave enough opened-end that there is a freshness and sense of unpredictability that permeates these tracks. Between that and its glitchy, spliced nature, Caracoles de una Ciudad Enterrada is a pleasant all-around listen. Recommended.
Lords of Outland is a Northern California collective led by saxophonist Rent Romus for the last quarter-century. They have recorded (if my count is correct) a dozen albums. For the last 15 of these years, the group has consisted of a core trio including Romus, drummer Philip Everett, and bassist Ray Schaeffer. On this effort, they are joined by guitarist Alex Cohen.
From the outset, Romus and crew blaze an adventurous path. The opening track, Grown out of Stone, begins with a jagged, start-stop rhythm before Cohen joins in with speed picking up and down the fretboard. Romus’s contributions move this track comfortably into free jazz territory with rolling leads. To mix things up, Like Tears on Ice follows with a combination of soulful sax playing, spiky guitar, and outside rhythmic excursions.
Cohen, in particular, maintains a frenetic pace that would likely dominate this recording if it were not for his placement in the mix being slightly under that of Romus. When not taking a leading role, Cohen provides a non-stop variety of disjointed notes and microstructures. Romus, on the other hand, focuses his playing on solos as well as defining loose themes.
Perhaps the most outside piece is Revenge of Trees, wherein Everett and Schaeffer display their chaotic improv prowess while Cohen provides discordant, twisted notes to accompany Romus’s blasts. Additional tracks switch up the sound a bit with Cohen on viola or Romus on flute.
Romus has been producing consistently innovative music for three decades and it is a shame that his efforts have not gotten more recognition. While Lords of Outland is only one of his groups, it is perhaps the most audacious. Further, 25 Years Under the Mountain is a grand offering – a great place to start exploring the discography of this veteran outfit.