AMN Reviews: Ashley Walters – Sweet Anxiety [populist records PR014]

Much of the most interesting new music is not only composed with specific performers in mind, but is written in collaboration with them. This isn’t a process unique to contemporary music; historically, composers have written works for the noted performers of their time, and in more recent years, composers interested in expanding the range of new music’s sound palette have worked with technically adventurous virtuosi to create distinctly challenging pieces—challenging not only to play, but for listeners used to the more conventional range of instrumental sounds, challenging to assimilate as well. The practice of composer-performer collaboration seems to be particularly flourishing right now, often with excellent results. An example of this is Ashley Walters’ Sweet Anxiety, a collection mostly made up of new collaborative works for solo cello.

Two of the collaborative works on the disc are by composer Nicholas Deyoe. For Stephanie (2009), a wedding gift to the composer’s wife, is a piece whose volatile dynamics and unusual detuning scheme seem to capture the anxiety and aspiration that surround such an emotionally complex rite of passage. Deyoe’s another anxiety (2013) worries its sound material with compulsively repeated figures, frantic bowing, and jaw-clenchingly close microtonal dyads.

For Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters (2012-2013), collaboration came in when Walters began the process of interpreting the completed score. Smith’s semi-improvisational piece left Walters much latitude in terms of phrasing, durations, and dynamics, and as a consequence her performance is richly expressive and at times uninhibited.

The highlight of the recording is Walters’ interpretation of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV for cello. Berio composed the piece for the Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram but it was left unfinished at the composer’s death; Walters worked with de Saram to realize her own version of the score. Sequenza XIV contains a number of technical challenges, including extended pizzicato and arco gestures meant to evoke Sri Lankan drumming rhythms. Walters’ performance conveys the power of the piece in a way that feels entirely natural.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Revisiting Anthony Braxton’s Early Solo Saxophone Work

I stopped accumulating downloaded music sometime in the late 2000s when, scrolling through the contents of my nearly-full 1 terabyte external hard drive, I spotted the 6-CD historical retrospective of Polish jazz that I hadn’t listened to in the five years since I had downloaded it. Indeed I still had it, but did I need it, still if ever? Abundance creates whole new levels of compulsion, under which desire can continue unchecked despite aural and mental satiety.

Anthony Braxton enthusiasts understood this dynamic several decades in advance of the digital music era. Even then, most of us necessarily learned to draw the line somewhere: while you’d always find noteworthy exceptions, you tended to focus on a particular period of Braxton’s work, or a group with specific backing musicians, or a kind of instrumental ensemble, or even a record label. Often these would be determined in part by your first exposure to Braxton’s music. While I suspect the first recording I ever heard was the copy of New York, Fall 1974 housed at the college radio station where I first DJ’ed in the middle and late 1980s, the first Braxton recording I owned was the double-LP Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 I scored for $4 from the cut-out bin at Wax Stacks in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

So I’ve always been partial to Braxton’s quartet and solo work, and the Tricentric Foundation’s recent announcement of an “official bootleg” 1971 solo recording available for free through this year’s holiday season compelled me to go ahead and add one more downloaded recording to my collection. Since 2011, when they first released Solo (France) 1971 in its “Braxton Bootleg” series, Tricentric has augmented the already voluminous body of Braxton recordings by at least a third. For those keeping score, that’s over one hundred additional recordings in a total discography that currently numbers at 309.

Nevertheless, Solo (France) 1971 is a valuable entry in the Braxton catalog, historically and in its own right. It stands between his two watershed double-LP solo alto saxophone recordings, For Alto (Delmark 1969) and Saxophone Improvisations, Series F (America 1972). For Alto proved to be a groundbreaking moment in the history of recorded jazz and a benchmark for saxophonists to come. It’s a consummate statement not despite but because of its sonic imperfections: while Chuck Nessa achieved some post-production cleanup of the home recordings Braxton made in his Parkway Community Center apartment, For Alto still retains an urgent grittiness and presence as vital as the music itself.

His 1972 follow-up for the America label could be viewed in this context as a studio-quality redo of For Alto if it weren’t for the fact that here Braxton featured newer material, specifically the Composition 26 series of solo works as opposed to the Composition 8 series featured on For Alto. Then in 1975, the Futura label released Braxton’s LP Recital Paris 71, a misnomer in that side 2 was a studio recording of a four-part overdubbed piano piece. Side 1 however featured a 25-minute rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “Come Sunday,” from a performance at the Theatre de l’Epeé des Bois in Paris; soprano saxophone specialist Steve Lacy was also on that bill and thereby awakened to the possibilities of solo performance that he went on to explore at length.

The first two tracks on Solo (France) 1971, and the clear standouts to my ears, were issued in 1998 on the CD News From the 1970s, which accompanied the current issue of the Italian magazine Musica Jazz. A haphazard piece work, News mistitles the two solo alto tracks and separates them in its running order, placing between them a duo with Dave Holland on cello and a quartet date with Kenny Wheeler and a French rhythm section. So if anything, it’s worth having Solo (France) 1971 solely for restoring these two pieces in their full and proper context.

Track one is a nine-minute rendering of a gorgeous ballad, which the Tricentric release calls “Composition 26A” and calls “Composition 26D.” Here I’m inclined to believe restructures, because it’s without question the same tune Braxton gives an all-too brief (2:20) treatment to open the second disc of Saxophone Improvisations, Series F. Played mostly in the alto’s middle-high register, this France 1971 version begins with a quiet near-octave drop and then uses a climbing 4-note arpeggio as a signature motif. Braxton takes two runs through the theme, solos while routinely suggesting and even quoting the theme, and then goes “back to the head” in traditional fashion. In fact it’s perhaps Braxton at his most “singable,” and if the long-mistaken notion of his music as “too cerebral” still exists, this track can put that notion to bed for good.

France 1971’s second track track is without question “Composition 8F,” which Braxton rendered in jaw-droppingly blistering fashion as Track 2 on For Alto. Clocking in just 70 seconds shy of the original rendition, what this version lacks in length and firey intensity it makes up for, as does the whole release, with the overall recording quality, which features nicely balanced roomsound and just a touch of reverb. Comparing the two performances also makes it clear how well-structured the piece is, with Braxton’s shifts in attack, register and tone–from the overblown runs and staccato blasts to the most altissimo squeals–all clearly deliberate and planned in advance.

At the release’s midpoint stands a version of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” which Braxton renders admirably. Then come two more originals: “Composition 8J” is a study in eighth-note patterns, showing Braxton working through a variety of scales and chords, with more than enough melody to avoid charges of being a mere formalistic exercise. This piece also made it to the Series F release, and again in live performance Braxton extends the treatment by a full minute-and-a-half, working through slightly different scales from the onset but still making the composition recognizable.

Closing out the set is “Composition 26G,” which explores multiphonics, or the production of multiple notes simultaneously. In this rendition, Braxton works mostly from the stratosphere down, lingering in extreme altissimos while picking up lower notes along the way. At the three-minute mark, Braxton hums at pitches below his playing to enhance his harmonic and tonal production. In hindsight one can see this piece as a textbook example of techniques Steve Lacy and Evan Parker would soon be using to great effect, Lacy in his various “Duck” pieces and Parker in his Chronoscope recordings en route to forming his mature solo style.

The total running time of Solo (France) 1971 stands at a little over half an hour, which seems short of a full live performance and begs the question if the tapes ran out or haven’t fully surfaced. In fact, their origin adds to yet another lingering confusion: Tricentric’s release notes indicate that the recording “comes from a reel to reel tape in Mr. Braxton’s possession in a box labeled ‘Ghent’” and that “research by Hugo DeCreen suggests that this is indeed a solo concert from France 1971, and that the Ghent solo concert was in 1973.” Regardless, the downloaded tracks from Tricentric bear the words “Solo (Ghent) 1969 to 1971” in both the album folder and the individual tracks’ album title fields.

Until the details get sorted out, it’s perhaps best to put aside the discography nerd in you–and just enjoy the music.

–Tom Orange

AMN Reviews: Flames of Genesis – Interstellar Transmigration Part I: A Bridge to Further Realms (2017; Minotauro Records)

Deep space music was pioneered by artists such as Lustmord, Robert Rich, and Steve Roach. Based to some extent on the Berlin School of electronic music, these individuals sought to capture emotions of the void. Rather than being simply bleak and empty, their recordings were majestic and powerful.

Flames of Genesis is a U.K.-based project that does not attempt to hide its influences or goals. With an album cover depicting nebulae and a black hole, the concept behind the music is apparent. And if space is your thing, there is a lot to like on Interstellar Transmigration Part I: layers of bassy synth washes provide a slow-moving bed of drones with occasional percussive elements. Ponderous and dark, the album could easily be a soundtrack (in fact the group uses the word “cinematic” to describe its music).

In light of the aforementioned influences, it is not hard to trace the lineage of Flames of Genesis back through the 1990’s, 1980’s, and 1970’s. Accordingly, the music on Interstellar Transmigration Part I is not radically new, but instead is an example of just how compelling this sub-genre can be.  A thumbs up for fans of dark ambiance and slow drones. But even if those styles are not your cup of tea, take a step outside the airlock and give Flames of Genesis a try.

AMN Reviews: Martin Küchen – Lieber Heiland, Lass Uns Sterben [SOFA560]

Martin Küchen’s grimly titled Lieber Heiland, lass Uns Sterben was, fittingly enough, recorded in a crypt. The room, a stone-floored space built in 1121 and reputed to be the oldest such space in Sweden, is part of Lund Cathedral. Küchen went there in May, 2016 to set out the music that makes up this recording. Küchen plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; he uses radio, iPod and electronic tambura as additional sound sources. Two of the tracks feature overdubbing, but it is the three unedited live performances at the literal center of the set that carry the greatest expressive immediacy, even when Küchen’s horn is supplemented by sounds in fixed media. The brief Music to Silence Music unfolds with the lightness of rising and falling waves of sound that recall a fluttering of wings. The resonance of the crypt’s acoustics undoubtedly enhance the subtle shadings Küchen coaxes from his instrument; here, as on other pieces, Küchen’s saxophone sound takes on a flutelike airiness. The long Purcell in the Eternal Deir Yassin is a slowly developing, uncluttered alap for solo saxophone accompanied by electronic tambura. Ruf zu mir Bezprizorni…also uses prerecorded sound, in this case of a piano, over which Küchen’s saxophone laments hoarsely. While the set seems to represent a meditation on history’s uneasy dialectic of barbarity and cultivation, the stark beauty of the individual pieces provides an opportunity for reflection that the listener can fill with his or her own meanings.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: 03 – Trashumancia [Sofa 561]

On this second release by the international trio O3—Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach, Italian flutist Alessandra Rombolá, and Spanish accordionist Esteban Algora—the group return to the chapel of Ermita de la Anunciada in Urueña, Spain, where their debut recording was made. This new recording opens with two resonant and widely-spaced percussive thumps, gradually followed by the clink of ceramic surfaces in collision and the whoosh and scrape of objects finding their voices. It’s an appropriate introduction to the exploration of space and timbre that follows. O3’s work is a kind of abstract painting with sound—more Miró than Pollock—with splashes of color in irregular shapes occupying discrete zones of audio space. Although the sound textures tend toward a higher density the further the playing develops, the points at which sounds join tend to be permeable; so too are the spaces between individual pieces, with the seven tracks working together as a single, non-narrative suite of timbral events.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: ECM’s Early Avant-Garde Recordings

Last week’s launching of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records back catalog on a variety of digital music streaming platforms (including Apple Music, Amazon and Spotify) has generated some well-deserved attention. “Although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP,” the label declared in a press release, “the first priority is that the music should be heard.” Listing several forms of online music piracy, the label argued, “It was important to make the catalog accessible within a framework where copyrights are respected.” In other words, if you can’t beat them, join them on your own terms.

In its nearly fifty years of operation, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) has managed several remarkable achievements like few if any other independent labels. First, it attained a degree of commercial success, through recordings like Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Officium, that in turn enabled risks on less accessible projects. Second, and understandable for a producer like Eicher who cut his teeth as a recording assistant for the iconic Deutsche Grammophon label, ECM engendered a crossover between the genres of broadly improvised and composed music that succeeded in ways Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” approach could have only imagined. Third, it forged its unique aesthetic and approach to artist selection and recording methods that together yielded a characteristic “ECM sound” definitional in many ways to both an historical period and an ongoing style of music.

It’s also crucially important to recall how dire the straits were for jazz in the 1970s when ECM embarked upon these achievements–jazz in general, but avant-garde jazz particularly. Blue Note made a few mid-1960s ventures into the avant garde, like Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, but otherwise hewed closely to a hard-bop tradition central to the Ken Burns view of jazz history. With the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Impulse label struggled with flagging sales and failed efforts in quadrophonic LP releases. Most of the avant garde survived either in a DIY mode of performance and recording or else took to academia.

Thus in the early 1970s, while the trademark ECM sound and graphic design style were still emerging and shaping themselves, the label served as a significant forum for some of the most important avant-garde artists of the moment and beyond. So here are my selections of seven noteworthy ECM releases from the label’s first three years (only two of which also appears in the list of “21 essential albums” put together by the New York Times), including some undisputed classics as well as some overlooked or even forgotten recordings that deserve attention.

Marion Brown, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM 1004, 1970)

Brown is arguably the most criminally neglected saxophonist of his generation. Like his predecessor Ornette Coleman, Brown’s approach to the alto sax was both firey and lyrical, with a tone and harmonic sense steeped in the southern blues. An alumnus of Coltrane’s Ascension session, Brown went on to record and release leader dates with Impulse and ESP-Disk, then emigrated to Europe like so many of his compatriots in the late 1960s, returned to the States, reentered academia and ultimately took up painting. His back catalog of over 30 recordings as a leader or co-leader remains almost entirely out-of-print, many of which never even made it to CD.

Afternoon is not only unique in Brown’s catalog but is perhaps unique among the entirety of jazz recordings. I was certainly among those somewhat disappointed upon giving it a first listen years ago, largely because the roster of all-star performers–including Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Andrew Cyrille and Jeanne Lee–never seems to rise to the occasion. Many otherwise unknown names were included among the performers as well, and this was partly the point: Brown’s approach here is to treat large ensemble, broadly-structured collective improvisation as something akin to a regional folk music.

In the album’s liner notes, Brown describes the title piece on side one as “a tone poem [that] depicts nature and the environment in Atlanta,” and thus its nod to Claude Debussy should not go unnoticed. “Djinji’s Corner” on side two, as David Grundy explains in his thoughtful commentary, “adapts a practice from Ghanaian music, in which a core of skilled musicians is supplemented by community members with lesser ability.” The overall effect is, again, quite unique in the literature of recorded “experimental jazz,” as Grundy explains:

Brown’s music is very much preoccupied with feelings, and moods–all those subjective qualities which at once account for music’s sensual and unique power, and risk reducing it to something ephemeral and purely subjective–but it is preoccupied with these in a thoughtful way, as part of a theoretical, intellectual consideration that encompasses the social and the spiritual in a fairly direct manner.

Music Improvisation Company, ST (ECM 1005, 1970)

This group remains a real watershed in the history of British experimental improvised music. In July 1969, as Ben Watson explains in his book Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Bailey was joined by Hugh Davies, Evan Parker, and Jamie Muir for a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, under the group name “The London Instrumental and Electronic Improvising Group.” (The performance was eventually released in 1975 on Incus Records run jointly by Bailey, Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley).

A year later, after a second (June 1970) BBC 3 radio session, the four were joined by vocalist Christine Jeffery to record for ECM (late August 1970), and the results remain today as a singular entry in the ECM catalog. While Bailey and Parker had cut their teeth in London’s 1960s improvised music scene, Davies and Muir had backgrounds in the visual arts, bringing together a unique collective sensibility. Bailey’s mature instrumental style and approach, focusing on what might be thought of as a rejection of nearly all traditional or conventional means of sound production on the guitar, were already formed by this point. Meanwhile Parker took a parallel approach to saxophones, deploying an arsenal of extended techniques that, as the 1970s progressed, he would selectively hone and augment to forge his highly original and celebrated style.

One crucial technique Parker had yet to develop at this point, however, was circular breathing, which he has since attributed to his time with MIC and the need he felt to compliment the sustained sounds Davies was producing in these group sessions. An electro-acoustic instrument builder, Davies played organ on the first BBC session but abandoned it for the ECM date to focus on electronics and live sound processing. Completing the mix for this session were percussion from Jamie Muir, who went on to a brief live performing stint with King Crimson (during the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic years), and Christine Jeffery, whose incredibly expressive range of vocals blends seamlessly with the other sounds generated in the group.

Part of what’s enjoyable about this kind of music are the moments where it’s unclear who or what is making a given sound. This is especially difficult to do with vocals, and Jeffery deserves special praise in this regard. There are, to be sure, extended moments of the quiet or near-silence characteristic of the later ECM sound, but again Ben Watson aptly summarizes why this is such an engaging recording and unique in the ECM catalog: “Everything the Music Improvisation Company play refuses the ‘gorgeousness’ offered by electronics–echo, automatic harmony, constant shimmer–instead foregrounding manual intervention, human decisiveness, collective activity, repartee.”

It’s also well worth noting that while the group was short-lived, it does mark the beginning of the evolving cast of players Bailey would go on to host for live performances and subsequent Incus releases under the abbreviated moniker “Company,” yielding 18 recordings from 1977 to 2001.

Jan Garbarek Quartet, Afric Pepperbird (ECM 1007, 1970)

Before he came to typify the “icy,” “ethereal,” or even “Nordic” ECM sound, Garbarek was a firey player whose solos often went into the tonal extremes of precursors like Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri. At the age of 20, Garbarek cut Til Vigdis, his debut record for the Norwegian Jazzforbund label, which featured a side-long cover of “Mr. J. C.,” a perhaps deliberate misreading of Coltrane’s tune “Mr. P. C.” Live recordings from that time also display Garbarek’s group covering the Pharoah Sanders compositions “Upper Egypt” and “Capricorn Rising.”

Recorded a year after but appearing a year before the George Russell Presents The Esoteric Circle session was released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, Afric Pepperbird is thus the quasi-official debut of the Garbarek Quartet–with Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arlid Andersen on bass and Jon Christiensen on drums. It’s certainly a lineup that would become a Scandinavian super-group in relatively short order, featuring what would also soon become permanent members of the ECM artist family.

Stylistically though, while Garbarek would exhibit some extreme playing in his early days, he couldn’t be mistaken for a card-carrying “extremist.” Pepperbird’s A-side concluding centerpiece, “Beast of Kommodo,” is a perfect example of late-1960s, modal free improvisation, with Andersen’s 9-count bass line and Rypdal’s two-chord vamping setting the harmonic palette. Garbarek enters with some gentle, long tones in the upper-middle register of the tenor; in the tune’s first three minutes he only breaks into altissimos and polyphonics briefly, and much of the rest of his soloing is reasonably with the tune’s harmonic parameters.

Pepperbird is well worth the listen, alone and in the context of his other early ECM releases under solo or joint leadership: Sart, Triptykon, Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere.

Robin Kenyatta, Girl From Martinique (ECM 1008, 1970)

Early in his career, alto saxophonist and flautist Kenyatta earned some important credits in his avant-garde pedigree, including recording sessions with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Alan Silva. He then flirted, like many of his peers, with more mainstream recordings in the 1970s, including a series of leader dates for Atlantic Records.

Girl From Martinique is Kenyatta’s one and only ECM release, a quartet session that includes the little-known Fred Braceful on drums (a friend of Eicher who, according to Evan Parker, facilitated the Music Improvisation Company session discussed above), Arlid Andersen again on bass, and German fusion keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner, who contributes some extensive workouts on the clavinet. Built by the German Hohner company (also famous for harmonicas), the clavinet was an electrified clavichord that Sun Ra pioneered early on. On a medium-tempo ballad like “We’ll Be So Happy,” for example, the interplay of flute and clavinet within a traditional quartet format is delightful and, to my ears, completely unique.

Circle, Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19, 1972)

Circle was not merely an avant-garde supergroup, but it also marks the return of Anthony Braxton to the world of performing and recording, without which he might have well continued that short period, after his time in Paris and upon his return to New York in early 1970, when he had given up on music and made his living hustling games of chess in Washington Square Park.

Although Braxton was a late addition to an already existing trio–Chick Corea on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on percussion, documented on an ECM recording from 1971–it’s useful to consider this group in the long history of Braxton’s quartets, in which he performed and recorded some of his most important work. One would have to begin charting this history with his two recordings for BYG/Actuel, which featured Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall–and only imagine what that quartet would have achieved had it been able to continue.

Still, this was clearly a group effort, with songwriting credits distributed fairly evenly (or tipped slightly in Holland’s favor), along with the inclusion of two standards: Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and the venerable “There is No Greater Love,” which co-author Isham Jones turned over to Woody Herman in 1936 and was covered as recently as 2003 by Amy Winehouse. And while arguably more experimental Circle ventures exist on other recordings, particularly on the two double-LPs Blue Note released a few years later under Corea’s name, Paris Concert remains the group’s definitive document before artistic differences (Corea found a more conventionally expressive group in Return to Forever) contributed to the group’s dissolution.

Paul Bley, Open, To Love (ECM 1023, 1973)

Not simply one of Bley’s best recordings in an extensive catalog of over 100 recordings as a leader (and another 100 as a sideman or co-leader), Open, To Love is perhaps one of the greatest solo piano recordings in any genre. It’s also worth nothing that by this time Bley had already released several recordings featuring his work on synthesizer. Nevertheless, Bley was always unique among his avant-garde piano contemporaries. Having come through the school of hard bop, he never embraced the pyrotechnics, virtuosity or athleticism that could aptly describe pianists as different as Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. Instead he worked a lot with sustain, tone and touch, allowing melodic lines and even single notes to hang in the air and overlap each other, and thus making him a quintessential ECM artist. In this regard his nearest ancestor in the jazz tradition might be Thelonious Monk, with whom he also shares an interest in dissonant intervals while otherwise having a rather different approach to melody.

In an equally characteristic approach to song selection and repertoire, Bley here includes only two of his own pieces: of the remaining five compositions, three are by his ex-wife Carla Bley, and two are by his soon-to-be ex-wife Annette Peacock. Hardly unique among his recordings in this regard, and to give just one example, he performed Carla Bley’s hauntingly beautiful “Ida Lupino” on no less than ten different recordings between 1964 and 1995. One might see this as an obsessive inability to let go of the past, but I prefer to take it as a sign of acknowledgement and generosity: these are wonderful compositions that deserve every airing they can get.

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference Of The Birds (ECM 1027, 1973)

Not routinely considered an avant-gardist, Holland of course has the virtuosity to excel in any musical context. Yet his one-off quartet project can be viewed through two different lenses: as a revamped Circle, with Sam Rivers replacing Chick Corea in the original lineup; or as a Sam Rivers Trio augmented by the inclusion of Anthony Braxton.

This latter view has more staying power: at the start of the 1970s, with his Blue Note recordings and some extensive touring with Cecil Taylor behind him, Rivers began to use the trio format as one of his preferred vehicles. Rivers initially worked through a variety of rhythm sections, until this recording brought Holland and Altschul firmly into the orbit to form his regular working trio by 1974. So memorable was this trio that Pi Recordings released a live two-disc 2007 reunion concert in 2012.

The opening moments of the lead track, “Four Winds,” make it obvious why Rivers stayed with this rhythm section: Holland and Altschul swing like mad, and especially at a blistering tempo. Like Braxton’s “Composition 23B” that opens his New York, Fall 1974 album, the free-bop of “Four Winds” shows how, contrary to its reputation for being too cerebral and serious, avant-garde music can be full of exuberance, delight and just plain fun. Rock critic Robert Christgau even wrote at the time, “the title cut is so exquisite it makes my diaphragm tingle.”

Conference is also noteworthy as the only recorded collaboration between Rivers and Braxton. With ample aesthetic affinities between them despite their clear differences in tone and style, one can only wonder at what could have resulted from further collaborations. Alas, we only have this brief slab or magic, particularly on the title track where, after an opening solo from Holland, Rivers and Braxton both state the theme on flute (an axe Braxton kept in his arsenal far less frequently than Rivers), with Braxton quickly moving to soprano saxophone and Altschul finishing the track on marimba.

— Tom Orange

AMN Reviews: Colossloth – Heathen Needles (2017; Cold Spring Records)

This is the second recording from Colossloth, who is as far as I can tell, an Englishman. And I will frankly admit that it is hard to believe this variety of sounds, noises, and harsh freaked-out melodies come from a single individual. Heathen Needles, released earlier this month, covers an impressive amount of ground. From dirty synths to distorted drones, speaking and screaming voices, feedback, acoustic piano and guitar, backward masking, noise walls, and undulating rhythms. Needless to say, this is not pleasant music in the normal sense of that phrase. Instead, Colossloth generates a veritable hellscape of aggressively-manipulated sounds.

The title track, as an example, begins with a grungy synth rhythms, interspersed with video-game fallout effects that melt away into walled noise. These elements are joined by IDM-styled keyboard chording, the echoing of which survives until the end of the piece. Compare that with the next offering, Lain Inert, which features slowly rolling synths with decimated samples, power chords from an electric guitar, and guttural voices. We Had a Pact is comprised of several layers of drones, walls, and noises, growling, post-industrial rhythms, and a deceptively charming melody made from the aforementioned backward masking. There Will Be Islands begins with distorted noise walls before adding a nearly ambient synth rhythm, then indecipherable spoken word elements.

Heathen Needles is fresh and surprisingly non-repetitive. Colossloth processes a number of familiar styles and techniques in a fashion that is unusual and unconventional. The result is a thoroughly twisted and enjoyable album.