AMN Reviews: Michael Pisaro – Resting in a Fold of the Fog [Potlatch P117]

P117_cover.inddMuch of composer Michael Pisaro’s work is driven by the desire to explore the often complex ramifications of an ostensibly simple, fundamental idea. It isn’t unusual for him to take as his starting point the act of listening, whether to environmental sounds or to the properties of the material resources—sometimes deceptively basic—that his compositions call for. And focused listening does seem to be the key to the reception of the two long pieces collected on Resting in a Fold of the Fog.

Grounded Cloud (2015-2016) is a work for electric guitar, electronics and amplified bass drum. The latter instrument, played by the Dedalus Ensemble’s Stéphane Garin, gives the performance a distinctive, rain-like sound by having been prepared with grains of rice arranged to vibrate on its surface. Over its twenty-minute length the piece traces a long-period, undulating dynamic of accumulation and dispersal helped along by noise from Pisaro’s electronics and the electric guitar of Didier Aschour, also of the Dedalus Ensemble. (Although Pisaro played electric guitar on the piece’s premiere performance in November 2015, here he is on laptop.)

Hearing Metal 4 (2010-2011) for bowed glockenspiel, electric guitar and laptop, is the fourth in a series of compositions centered on the sonic properties of a specified metal percussion instrument. Originating with a piece for sixty-inch tam-tam, with this installment the series moves to a much smaller and higher-pitched instrument. As with many of Pisaro’s compositions, the focus of Hearing Metal 4 is on making explicit the multiplicity of sounds implicit in a single material or sonic gesture. The pitch material is accordingly simple: An ascending A major scale. The scale is arranged as a series of events separated by silences; with each succeeding tone the glockenspiel’s thin, almost transparent sound shimmers when intersected by the guitar and electronics. When listened to closely this piece, like the previous one, yields a sometimes surprising, albeit restrained, sensuality.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Andrew Weathers & Seth Chrisman – Ogallala (2017; Full Spectrum)

fs054-coverWeathers and Chrisman return for their third release together, Ogallala. Here, the duo explores drones, plucked rustic instruments, object percussion, and field recordings.  Recorded in rural Texas, the album has a haunted desert feel, evoking post-industrial landscapes.

The four tracks include metal noises, rattling and scraping of objects, piano melodies, post-rock styled electric guitar, and the aforementioned drones. Acoustic guitar (or is it banjo?) adds to the vague southwestern character of the album.  But there is also a quiet ambiance to long sections of these pieces, where it is easy for the listener to ignore the details and just absorb the atmosphere.

According to the liner notes, “Weathers and Chrisman began to develop the raw tracks at night after spending their days performing [building] renovations…[a]fter spending long hours toiling under the Texas sun, they would collapse and drone out – a performative exhaustion ritual that bore rich fruits.” This captures the spirit of Ogallala quite well – an uncomfortable and temporary peacefulness.

AMN Reviews: Anglagard – Live: Made in Norway (2017; Blu Ray/DVD)

download-2According to Anglagard‘s own discography, playing at Progfest in 1993 was one of their earliest live gigs. The young group at work had just released their first album Hybris and what you hear is a young group at work whose ambition and hunger steamrolled over their few deficiencies. This debut album and its follow up Epilog were two of the first to light a fire under what was a growing revival in the symphonic progressive rock of the 70s. However, despite their significant impact, it would be just under two decades before their third studio album was released and in that interim most of what you heard was rumors, reissues of their albums that would go quickly out of print, but no real indication that the band had hung it up permanently. From an outsider vantage point, there really was no documentation of what would have been the maturing period of a young group, and by the next live album, Prog Pa Svenska: Live in Japan, the band had replaced two key members at the keyboards and drums spot, basically causing something of a reset in the interpersonal chemistry. While that album is certainly good, after all you’re still basing it on extremely high quality compositional work, there was still no impression that everything had quite come together yet. However, since the reformation of this new group, the band has been steadily gigging and have welcomed back Jonas Engdegard to the fold, returning to the dual-guitar sextet of their youth.

Anglagard is a group that is not young anymore. 20 years will do that to you. It’s more of a shift now that you can see them play together on a stage. It’s even more disconcerting watching this sextet crunched up on stage in Norway playing some of those most sonically dynamic material ever recorded in rock music to a cramped, standing-room only crowd. But mostly the experience is awe inspiring in how they’ve taken material from three albums separated in the middle by many long years and found a way of making it all consonant. Almost all of the tracks from the early years are minutes longer, such as the extended 17 ½ minute Kung Bore with an exquisitely gorgeous introduction. In fact one of the great changes that the new band brings to the material is all of the (sometimes seemingly) interstitial folky material. So many of these softer moments aren’t found in the prog rock guidebook, they’re instead almost pagan-folky, with hints of Comus or Kemiallasat Ystavat. Anna Holmgren joyfully bringing out her inner Hermeto Pascoal with variations on a balloon escaping air or a long droning melodica line over the band’s half ambient, half mid-period King Crimson soundscaping is an utter delight to watch. When Linus Kaske joins her on saxophone during the end of “Langtans Klocka” the sound goes from Lizard era-King Crimson to a full free jazz blow out without changing the parameters of their sound at all. This isn’t a young band playing this, a young band wouldn’t be able to energetically pull this off.

And this is perhaps what’s so striking about a group that started their career with mostly minor-key material drenched in melancholy, that they’re having so much fun doing it at this point. There seems to be a sense that they know how powerful their oeuvre is. When they’re playing the central melodies from their classics there’s a sense of knowingness about it in that they not only have they earned it compositionally but they earn it from the way they build it up from the careful soundscaping to the peaks and back again. There isn’t a spot along the way that isn’t interesting. It’s not just mellotrons that give the sound depth, it’s also carefully crafted guitar and bass droning, all weaved in so competently that your brain jumps around from spot to spot to see who’s doing what, how they come together to create such an impressive unity. For me symphonic progressive music is most successful when it innovates without leaving behind the warm aesthetics of the 70s and Anglagard is not just checking off these boxes, they’re annihilating them completely. And I’m encouraged that there seems to be more stability in this line up than in any previous one. I’m genuinely hesitant to buy videos of groups knowing that they’ll probably sit on a shelf after a play, but this won’t be one of them, I felt like there was so much going on I want to hear it again already to see if my ears can keep up with it. I won’t say Anglagard has arrived, they did that in 1993. But whatever anticipation I have for a new studio album has definitely increased because their potential has never been higher at any point in their career. Meanwhile, the band has finally delivered a live release on par with their studio work.

Mike McLatchey

AMN Reviews: Idiot Flesh – Fancy (1997; Vaccination Records)

download-2One of the downsides of virtualizing your record and CD collection is that you can’t just look at it anymore – instead, you are staring at a user interface for a searchable database on your computer or mobile device. Still, every so often you manage to come across an album that you fondly recall as a favorite, but haven’t heard in years. Recently, that happened for me with Idiot Flesh‘s third and final album, Fancy. Enjoy this AMN retro-review.

Trying to pigeonhole this group is an exercise in futility. The closest comparison would be their contemporary, Mr. Bungle. Clownish, theatrical, punk-influenced experimental rock with disturbing themes and dark humor is the norm on all of their albums. As for influences, listen carefully and you’ll hear strains of The Residents, King Crimson, heavy metal, modern classical, Captain Beefheart…the list goes on.

Despite being a four piece, Idiot Flesh moves seamlessly between power chords, avant chamber rock, and even approaches being orchestral. The group consists of Nils Frykdahl and Gene Jun on guitars, Dan Rathbun on bass and Wes Anderson on drums and percussion. But their instrumentation also includes flute, castanets, violin, cello, trombone, marimba, bassoon and found objects. All four members contribute vocals. Fancy also includes around 10 guests on vocals and additional instruments. The emphasis here on vocals is not by accident. All 13 tracks feature singing to some extent, many including large choral elements, and assorted background spoken-word craziness.

If we are going to start anywhere, it has to be with the 9-minute Chicken Little. The group gives writing credit to Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, and Bela Bartok. But just dropping those names won’t necessarily given you a lead on the direction of this track. Complex heavy guitar themes with intricate bass / drum parts are predominate. Interspersed are silly lyrics, and occasional flute and violin breaks.  In the middle of the track, the group partakes in a semblance of a country / western hoedown, fiddles and all.

But Fancy actually begins with a demented circus piece, Dead Like Us, featuring bouncing horns that belie the dark content of the choral singing. Following this is Idiot Song, another clown-rock piece with slow atmospherics. The album also includes Twitch, a grinding industrial-influenced piece, with shouted, distorted vocals and staggered rhythms. Drowning explores a slice of an addict’s life. The lyrics on all of these tracks tell disturbing stories of disease and death, recurring themes for Idiot Flesh.

To that point, Teen Devil Worshipper explores the sicker side of the group while telling the (unfortunately true) story of a list-obsessed ritual murderer. Here, the vocalists chant through the lists in the first person, not unlike the Dead Kennedys would do when personifying deplorable acts. Other tracks that include the group’s twisted sense of style (though in a more humorous fashion) include Cheesus (Dance Mix) and People in Your Neighborhood, the latter a funk and blues oriented, sarcastic take on Sesame Street.

Needless to say, Fancy is not a happy album. Funny at times, possibly offensive, and ridiculously creative, but not pleasant.

Frykdahl and Rathbun went on to form Sleepytime Gorilla Museum with Carla Kihlstedt.  The same three, along with Anderson, contributed to early Charming Hostess recordings.  All members have more recently been involved with avant-garde stage productions and performance art.

Fancy is 20 years old. Does that make it an oldie? Or a classic? Regardless of categorization, no efforts aside from those from Mr. Bungle come close to the twisted sounds that emanate from formally-trained minds and limbs of Frykdahl, Jun, Rathbun, and Anderson. A desert island disc indeed.

AMN Reviews: Andrea Belfi – Alveare [IIKKI 002]

Alveare, a collection of electroacoustic music by Italian percussionist / composer Andrea Belfi, is part of a collaborative multimedia project with photographer Matthias Heiderich. Inspired by Heiderich’s pictures of the modernist housing complexes put up in Italy after World War II, the LP’s five tracks were composed and played between 2007 and 2016. As befits Belfi’s status as a percussionist, all are firmly set on a foundation of rhythmic drumming or percussion work, often wrapped in an atmospheric overlay of electronics. Grigio, which features cellist Audrey Chen as guest contributor, adds microtonally discordant sustained tones given various colors through changes in bow position. Abito creates the illusion of sounds passing back and forth in space, courtesy of guest artist Attila Faravelli on rotating speakers. The spare regularity of Belfi’s music aptly complements the visual rhythms of Heiderich’s images of these buildings’ unornamented, exposed concrete surfaces.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Zorn – Sacred Visions (2016; Tzadik)

8345There is something appealing about medieval music, even if one does not buy into the religiosity typically referenced therein. On Sacred Visions, the legendary saxophonist and composer John Zorn offers two pieces that are modern takes on the ancient.

The Holy Visions opens the album with five-voice, all-female contrapuntal choral music based on the life of Hildegard von Bingen. Subdivided into nearly a dozen sections over its 23 minutes, the track features both minimalistic themes, as well as the more chaotic breaks that Zorn is known for. Thus, this is not traditional church music in any sense, despite exhibiting a beatific feel at times. The vocals are not in English (Latin perhaps?) which adds to the mystical feel. At its best moments, The Holy Visions layers the voices in unusual arrangements and staggered lines that exceed the sum of their parts.

The Remedy of Fortune is a 15-minute string quartet inspired by 12th-century troubadour Guillaume de Machaut. Performed by the illustrious JACK Quartet, this piece exercises plucking and sawing, interspersed with flourishes and crescendos. A few medieval-sounding themes are quickly presented, then discarded. Despite Zorn’s basis of the piece, this is modern classical music. Discordant and disconnected, The Remedy of Fortune moves in unpredictable directions, exercising the full registers of the instruments. Often, the violins provide high-pitched atmospherics that are juxtaposed with uptempo runs from the viola and cello.

AMN Reviews: Hannah Addario-Berry – Scordatura [Aerocade]

hab_scordatura_digitalTwenty-fifteen marked the centennial of the composition of the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. To commemorate the anniversary, cellist Hannah Addario-Berry conceived the Scordatura Project, a program of music featuring the Kodály sonata along with commissioned works for cello by contemporary composers which use the same systematic detuning—the scordatura of the title–as the sonata.

A technically challenging composition, the Kodály sonata was one of the first pieces written for unaccompanied cello since the Bach suites. What distinguishes it is its grounding in a distinctive modality and tuning; Kodály based much of the musical material on Hungarian folk sources, and called for detuning the cello’s two lowest strings down a half step. Doing so produces a B minor seventh chord on the instrument’s open strings, which adds resonance to the work’s predominant modes. Addario-Berry’s interpretation is robust and liquid, keeping in the foreground the sonata’s origins in song.

The release’s other highlights include Eric Kenneth Malcom Clark’s Ekpyrotic: Layerings IV, which appears in a shorter and a longer version. Drawing on contemporary electronic technologies and acoustic techniques, the piece exploits micro-irregularities in the pitch, phrasing and intonation of both voice and cello by taking repeated material and looping and superimposing it into a thickening mass of close-but-not-identical figures. The longer and more dramatic of the two versions builds to a high density, microtonally discordant drone.

Addario-Berry includes several less abstract, more songlike compositions in the collection, the most intriguing of which is Calor, by composer Jerry Liu. Liu’s score specifies pitches but not their rhythmic values; likewise, measures are unmetered. This allows the performer broad discretion in phrasing and forming an overall narrative arc. Addario-Berry’s interpretation brings out the natural lyricism in her playing, which indeed is evident throughout the entire set of music.

Daniel Barbiero