AMN Reviews: Nate Wooley – Seven Storey Mountain VI (2020; Pyroclastic Records)

Nate Wooley is a thinking person’s composer. Through his recordings, you can hear the struggle between structure and freedom, as well as between texture and form. Wooley writes in a fashion that provides music on the page but is also fine-tuned to the preferred patterns of his chosen collaborators – some of whom opt for a more open-ended framework. As a listener, however, you never get the sense that he is overly sure of himself or that his recorded pieces are the final word – instead, his albums are snapshots in time of Wooley’s evolution as a creator and performer.

Seven Storey Mountain VI is the latest of a cycle that Wooley has been working on since 2007. His process involves developing a timing track of manipulated sounds (often taken from earlier pieces of the cycle), then adding instructions to it including written melodies, chord changes, or guided improvisation.  Wooley’s collaborators in this process are many, such as drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer, and Ben Hall, violinists C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, Rhodes players Emily Manzo and Isabelle O’Connor, and electric guitarists Ava Mendoza and Julien Desprez. They are rejoined by a 21-voice women’s choir.

The piece begins with a trancelike humming that slowly builds into a pseudo-psychedelic mass of themes, motifs, textures, and walled noises.  While virtually ambient at first, by the mid-point of the track the entire ensemble appears to be going flat out in a chaotic and multi-layered mix of drum patterns, speed-picked guitar, and horn blowouts to accompany a variety of pre-recorded sounds.  It is dense, harsh, difficult, and exhilarating.

The last 10 minutes of Seven Storey Mountain VI settles down (after a fashion) into a more deliberate piano / Rhodes driven melody with which the chorus begins a wordless chant. The chorus then sings a verse of Peggy Seeger’s Reclaim the Night – a powerful anti-misogyny statement – that brings the piece home with the repeated words, “You can’t scare me; you can’t scare me”.

This ending, in particular, demonstrates that Wooley’s approach goes beyond just the cerebral. In addition to the aforementioned intellectual struggles, Wooley is angry – pissed off – at a world that still relegates some to a second-class status just for being who they are. Thus, the choral finale is both chilling and cathartic, serving to acknowledge society’s ongoing structural inequities but to also take a bold stand against them.

Seven Storey Mountain VI comes out October 16, 2020 on Pyroclastic Records.

AMN Reviews: Lucas Brode – Vague Sense of Virtue [Cacophonous Revival CRR–003]

Lucas Brode’s Vague Sense of Virtue, out just a handful of days after autumn begins, is the perfect soundtrack for the season of long shadows. The album is a collection of seven tracks of duets for Brode’s electric guitar and Kevin Shea’s drums and percussion, enhanced by an atmospheric background wash of electronics and pre-recorded material. Although the music has a low-key warmth and timbral sensuality to it, at the same time it’s pervaded by an abstract melancholy. The title track, with its wistfully languid guitar melody and restless drumming, is typical of the album’s way of conveying a mood of expansive interiority. With the exception of some scattered and brief rapid runs of notes and an aggressively played and sonically distorted passage in the fifth track, Brode plays with an economy of means—three or four note motifs slowly expounded, bent, and varied with a reverb-laden, clear tone. Shea’s contribution is supportive and never overwhelming, and provides a subtle buoyancy where needed. Together they’ve made Vague Sense of Virtue a well-crafted sonic portrait of rumination and drifting emotions.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Horace Tapscott & the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra – Ancestral Echoes: The Covina Sessions 1976 [Dark Tree Records DT(RS)13]

In January of 1976 pianist/composer Horace Tapscott brought the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra into the Audiotronics Recording Studios in Covina, California. Tapscott had been leading the Los Angeles-based orchestra since the early 1960s; as with the Sun Ra ensemble, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra had a communal house where Tapscott and many of its members lived. Before 1976 the Arkestra had tried, largely without success, to make a studio recording. While the Covina sessions weren’t without their problems, the recordings that emerged, four of which are collected on this album, document an ensemble playing solid compositions with vigor.

The group that recorded in 1976 comprised over twenty musicians, many of whom were young players who joined after some of the founding members left to go on to pursue careers in New York and elsewhere. The exuberance of much of the music in this set may have been a consequence of the ensemble’s youthfulness as well as of the openings each composition left for expansive soloing.

Two of the compositions are Tapscott’s. The title track was originally one part of a four-part piano concerto he was commissioned to write in 1975 for the Watts Community Symphony Orchestra. It opens with a dramatic reading by the poet Kamau Daaood and develops into an asymmetrical yet swinging rhythm supporting solos by Tapscott and trumpeter Steven Smith and soprano saxophonist Jesse Sharps. The minor-key Sketches of Drunken Mary, another Tapscott composition, has an off-kilter swagger and brooding, descending melody arranged with an emphasis on the low brass. Alto saxophonist Michael Session and flautist Aubrey Hart provide energetic solos. Jo Annette, composed by alto saxophonist Guido Sinclair, a founding member of the group who’d since moved on, is an altered blues that features solos by tenor saxophonist Charles Chandler and Wendell C. Williams on french horn. The closing piece is the twenty-seven-minute-long Eternal Egypt Suite, an epic four-part composition by tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq that features a lovely, atmospheric flute introduction by Adele Sebastian.

Dark Tree have done a fine job of presenting the music, which comes packaged with a well-illustrated booklet featuring the recollections of several of the musicians who participated in the sessions.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Brandon Lopez – Santeria (2020; Catalytic Sound)

Bassist Brandon Lopez has collaborated with a number of luminaries in the New York avant-jazz scene, including John Zorn, Okkyung Lee, Ingrid Laubrock, Tyshawn Sorey, and Susan Alcorn among many others. Santeria is a solo release on which Lopez gives his instrument a workout both with and without a bow.

Lopez kicks off with the energetic Bomba, featuring rapid bowed runs of varying intensities. He takes this in a discordant and squeaky direction on 400 + 1, playing with extended techniques to temper his melodies with rough textures. In contrast, Epi offers a deliberately-plucked and angular theme that explores a set of patterns at different tempos and volumes. Brujo follows this, and is a high point for this listener, as Lopez provides an aggressive and nuanced improvisation that combines rhythmic sections and soloing.

While there is no shortage of solo albums available these days, Santeria is one worthy of attention even in a crowded field. It is powerful, while embracing both familiarity and exploration. Nicely done.

Note: The link above is to a shortened version of the album. We reviewed the full version, which should be available soon from Catalytic Sound, for members who subscribe to their Patreon.

AMN Reviews: Brendon Randall-Myers & Dither – Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies [New Focus Recordings fcr264]

Dynamics of Vanishing Bodies, Brendon Randall-Myers’ five-movement, album-length work for four electric guitars, sounds something like a scaled-down variation on some of Glenn Branca’s long-form symphonies for massed guitar orchestra. That shouldn’t be entirely surprising, given that Randall-Myers, himself a guitarist as well as a composer, participated in the Glenn Branca Ensemble and conducted it after Branca’s death. Randall-Myers’ background in punk and metal is also evident, particularly in the work’s distorted timbres and dissonances. Randall-Myers builds much of the collective sound as an accumulation of interlocking, short motifs and/or rhythms; rather than going for an effect of sheer sonic mass, he leaves open spaces over which the ringing ends of these brief riffs can hang. The guitars, played here by the Dither quartet of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley, put out a shimmeringly rich, reverb-drenched sound augmented by sustaining pedals and loops.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Anthology Of Persian Experimental Music Vol. II (2020; Unexplained Sounds Group)

In 2016, Unexplained Sounds Group released an unusual and compelling compilation album, Anthology of Persian Experimental Music. Here, the label follows up with an equally fascinating sample of sound art coming from Iran. Due to the current geopolitical climate, Iranian artists are often unable to export their works, though happily, some like these manage to slip through customs.

Anthology Of Persian Experimental Music Vol. II offers up almost 80 minutes of cutting edge experimental music from this overlooked region, most of which focuses on various combinations of dark ambient, industrial, noise, and more traditional Middle-Eastern styles. For instance, Shahin Souri and Alireza Amirhajebi sculpt raw noise into shifting walls, with the latter adding in synth and knob-twisting elements. Force Ignore, Ali Ostovar, and Ali Latif Shushtari offer up the traditional-sounding pieces, updated with modern atmospheres and feel. Coming in as favorites, for this listener at least, are the more well-known Xerxes the Dark and Reza Solatipour, who combine dark ambiance with electroacoustic cracking and effects. And speaking of dark ambient, Alphaxone fits that bill with haunting layers of synth.

If this is the kind of vibrant music coming from the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, it is a shame that it is impractical for many of us to visit and experience the scene in person. Nonetheless, this compilation provides the next best thing – a diverse set of tracks that are appealing as they are strange. Strong recommendation.

AMN Reviews: Merzbow / Mats Gustafsson / Balázs Pándi – Cuts Open (2020; RareNoiseRecords)

This trio first came together in 2013 for the album Cuts, a remarkable amalgam of free improv and noise. The group expanded to include Thurston Moore two years later for Cuts of Guilt, Cuts Deeper, which tied for Album of the Year in our annual list. Here, the original grouping returns for a followup double album.

At first blush, the four 18-24 minute tracks of Cuts Open head in a different direction than their predecessors. Still centered around unstructured improvisations, here Merzbow, Gustafsson, and Pándi also make delicate use of space. Merzbow and Pándi, for instance, provide loose, sculpted noise and a vast array of percussive materials all played at a deliberate pace. Gustafsson drones on flute in the background. While there is a sparseness at times to this approach, Pándi is relentlessly busy nonetheless. Thus, even when the focus is on atmospherics and an uncharacteristic quiet (for this group, at least), random percussion still floats around low-volume walled noise.

But as time goes on, these elements periodically grow to crescendos, often led by Merzbow and Pándi slowly breaking out. Gustafsson contributes angular soundings in such an unconventional fashion that it can be hard to tell whether some intonations are coming from him or from Merzbow. Particularly, these two lay down distorted pulses, patterns, vibrations, and squeaks while Pándi attacks his instruments as if he were playing a junkyard. The album culminates with a more consistently aggressive approach that harkens to the earlier albums. Merzbow controls lines of feedback and walled elements under which Pándi effectively solos. Gustafsson wails in full-on blowout mode.

Cuts Open is an exercise in opposites – load and soft, maximal and minimal, electric and acoustic. But throughout nearly 90 minutes of virtually indescribable noise, there is a persistent adherence to experimentation and adventure. The result is weird and full of surprises. Well done.

AMN Reviews: Dan Weiss – Natural Selection (2020; Pi Recordings)

Drummer and composer Dan Weiss continues a decade-plus run of compelling releases. He really hit his stride in 2014 with Fourteen, and has continued explorations on an annual or biennial basis. Natural Selection is the second offering from Weiss’s Starebaby outfit, which includes Matt Mitchell on piano and synth, Craig Taborn on piano, Fender Rhodes, and synth, Ben Monder on guitar, and Trevor Dunn on bass.

The group continues to navigate Weiss’s serpentine compositions, this time across eight tracks of varying lengths. While primarily known as a jazz drummer leaning toward the creative end of that genre, here Weiss combines influences encompassing progressive rock, metal, psychedelia…and yes, jazz. But on this album, these parts come together even more seamlessly than the group’s debut.

To that point, Episode 18 kicks off with heavy riffing from Monder, Dunn, and Weiss that varies between rapid cycles and more ponderous chording. Taborn and Mitchell join in to provide atmospherics, and then participate in a five-way free improvisational break before returning to the main theme. Head Wreck is another burner that incorporates Taborn and Mitchell’s dual piano attack with power chords from Monder over a staggered beat. Taborn solos on the Rhodes while Mitchell adds high own synth lines. Toward the middle of the track the entire group comes together with aggressive staccato patterns. A Taste of Memory, on the other hand, begins with wistful solo piano. Monder brings the fuzz guitar, and then breaks into a complex set of avant-rock themes accompanied by the entire group.

Natural Selection rocks, shreds, pounds, swings, introspects, and heads in quite a few unexpected directions. It is a more than suitable followup to Starebaby, and yet another must-have in the growing Weiss discography.

AMN Reviews: Anthony Braxton – Quartet (New Haven) 2014 (2019; Firehouse 12)

Box sets can be intimidating, especially one such as Quartet (New Haven) 2014. Clocking in at four hours, it is a serious time commitment in a digital world with non-stop interruptions, even though this is not a particularly extensive offering by Anthony Braxton’s standards. The set consists of four discs with one hour-long track per disc, each dedicated to an influential musician – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, James Brown, and Merle Haggard.

Braxton handles sax duties as expected, and is joined by long-time collaborator Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, flugelhorn, trumpets, and trumpbone. The group is rounded out by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Greg Saunier. The latter two are known for being members of off-beat rock groups Wilco and Deerhoof, respectively.

Braxton’s compositions are systemic, in that they incorporate various degrees of pre-established elements and open areas for improvisation, often allowing on-the-fly mixing and matching of parts. These long pieces seem to offer far more of the latter, as any discernable themes are introduced then rapidly left behind. Indeed, this effort comes across as wildly free improv more than anything else.

And even if not intended to be heard in that fashion, what a loosely-structured success it is. Braxton and Bynum trade melodies and tight runs, either in the form of rapid-fire notes or angular noises. But Cline – and to a lesser extent, Saunier – practically steal the show. Particularly, Cline sculpts distorted chording, feedback, and disjoint motifs into non-stop and rarely repeating explorations.  Saunier shifts between keeping a semblance of a beat and free-form breaks.

As a whole, this quartet covers a great deal of ground in terms of texture, tempo, and volume.  It is a heady, frenetic, and challenging mix that will easily hold up to repeated listens.

AMN Reviews: Spektral Quartet – Experiments in Living [New Focus Recordings FCR270]

Given the easy accessibility of recorded music of virtually every type and era, at times it seems that musically, all time collapses into the present time. It’s a strangely ahistorical contemporaneity we seem to inhabit—is the internet eternity’s jukebox?–but even if it makes for a certain uneasiness, the random-shuffle possibilities it opens up may provide opportunities for musical illumination.

Realizing some of those possibilities is something Chicago’s Spektral String Quartet sets out to do with its ambitious double album Experiments in Living. The group selected seven string quartets written between 1873 and 2018 and, inventing a randomizing process to be realized with a deck of cards, offer the listener the chance to order and reorder the pieces for playback.

The works the group chose are Brahms’ 1873 String Quartet in C Minor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927); Ruth Crawford’s String Quartet of 1931; Anthony Cheung’s Real Book of Fake Tunes for string quartet and flute (2015); George Lewis’ 2016 String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living; Sam Pluta’s binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state (2016); and Charmaine Lee’s 2018 Spinals for string quartet, voice and electronics.

The eighty year lacuna between Crawford’s work and Cheung’s represents a conceptual as well as a chronological discontinuity. A developmental continuity binds the earlier three works: the Schoenberg quartet conserves something of the romanticism of the Brahms, while the dissonant counterpoint of the Crawford quartet plays peculiarly American variations on Schoenberg’s serialism. As distinct as these three pieces are, all are fully composed and squarely within the elastic but still recognizable tradition of Western art music. The pieces on the other side of the great divide, by contrast, break out of that tradition as much as they take their bearings from it. They sound different, to begin with—their vocabularies draw as a matter of course on extended performance techniques that at times push their surface textures to extremes of noise and fragmentation.

One other significant break lies with the newer works’ engagement with improvisation as something major to do, emulate, or draw inspiration from. Lee’s relatively short, single-movement work, which was created in collaboration with the ensemble, is completely improvised. Lee, who joins the quartet in their performance, is an improvising vocalist who augments her voice with electronic amplification; the piece is an abstract blend of wordless vocals and largely unpitched sounds. Pluta describes his rapidly moving, twenty-five movement quartet as being about the “joy of opening up the mind to improvisatory exploration;” what’s explored is an electronically inspired collection of quick-cutting, scratchy, oscillating sounds that the quartet convincingly translates onto acoustic string instruments. Cheung’s lyrical, five-movement piece layers a flute line played by Claire Chase in an improvisational spirit over compact, song-length settings. Although improvisation plays a significant role in Lewis’ musical poetics, his exuberant quartet, which like Lee’s, Pluta’s, and Cheung’s was commissioned by the ensemble, is a fully notated work that weaves together various extended techniques into an episodic, but audibly cohesive, tissue of sound.

In its willingness to disrupt ordinary ways of listening to music within a highly diverse tradition, The Spektral Quartet’s Experiments in Living is certainly a challenging recording, and a stimulating one as well.

Daniel Barbiero