The cover of Pantophobie is a cross between the surrealism of M. C. Escher and technological horror of H. R. Giger. Thus it is no surprise that the accompanying music demonstrates similar eclecticism. Indeed, Ni is a dual-guitar driven rock quartet from France that lands somewhere between King Crimson, post-rock, and metal with a tad of Mr. Bungle thrown in. Most tracks feature angular riffing over jagged rhythms with a shifting base. The pieces are highly structured and the group rarely deviates from their pre-defined path.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of variety throughout, with gritty textures, open-string chording, complex bass lines, and the occasional indecipherable yelling. Guitarists Anthony Béard and François Mignot trade off riffs, atmospherics, and short motifs. But the overall approach is modern – the guitar is not an avenue for extended solos, but instead a co-equal instrument to the others. Indeed, each piece moves from idea to idea so seamlessly, that the entire album can be enjoyed as if it were one extended track. While the album and track titles explore various types of fear, the feel therein is not of overwhelming anxiety or distress, but rather of a lurking darkness around the edges.
This is not Ni’s first go-around. Pantophobie, which comes out on March 1, is their fourth release overall, following a previous full album in 2015 and two earlier EPs. The group displays an elevated level of comfort and mastery in their quirky style, and this latest effort is well worth a listen.
As recently as sixty years ago, there was very little in the way of literature for the double bass as a solo voice; it was barely even considered a particularly musical instrument. (And don’t get me started on double bass jokes. As the ancient sage Jimmy Durante once said, I got a million of ‘em.) But now, not only is there a substantial and growing body of work written for the double bass either alone or as the solo voice within an ensemble, there is an even greater and faster-growing set of recordings for double bass as a vehicle for adventurous solo improvisation. Two fine new recordings by Jakob Heinemann and Matt Nelson can claim to be part of this now-venerable tradition. Both albums are concise and to the point—Heinemann’s four tracks total 34 minutes, while Nelson’s five come to 23 minutes—in presenting each artist’s engagement with the instrument’s broad range of techniques and consequent palette of sounds. While both bassists make generous and almost exclusive use of techniques largely developed within the last several decades, each does so with a sensibility that’s quite specific and ultimately personal. Heinemann seems drawn to the instrument’s naturally dark woodiness of tone, something he brings out with a robust, heavily percussive touch using both hands and bow. He’s especially effective at combining bow strikes with a strong left-hand attack to create a dense polyphony of timbres. Like Heinemann, Nelson is attentive to subsuming pitch in unconventional sound colors, albeit in a way less oriented toward auto-counterpoint. He shows himself to be particularly adept at exploring the multiphonic possibilities inherent in subjecting heavy strings to varying pressures from bow and fingers; on two tracks he plays with the microtonal variations that arise from simultaneously sounding stopped and open strings.
Green Dome consists of Zeena Parkins on acoustic harp, Ryan Sawyer on percussion, and Ryan Ross Smith on prepared piano, electronics, and modular synth. Thinking in Stitches is comprised of eleven tracks that are based on sets of rules that transform Shetland Lace knitting patterns into music.
Parkins is a veteran of avant-leaning musics, often making use of her specially-built electric harps (seeing her extract sounds from one of these devices live is quite the treat). But here, she sticks to the acoustic, while Smith takes up the weirder sounds that would normally be Parkins’ domain. Though constrained to the conventional instrument, her approach is anything but, featuring runs and flourishes amongst other sounds and textures. Smith invokes the modular synth to lay down backing tracks of organic burblings, and also contributes haphazard effects. His piano, however, is tuned to an unusually metallic palette. Sawyer contributes angular rhythms and stop/start forays – indeed, his ability to provide unpredictable beat patterns is one of the most compelling aspects of the album.
The trio covers a fair amount of ground, from the haunting and melancholic to animated post-industrial inter-locking themes. Each piece involves a degree of structure, the ins and outs of which are explored by all three individuals. And yet, even the tracks with more repetitive sections exhibit sufficient non-systematic elements. Parkins, Sawyer, and Smith remain so busy throughout that Thinking in Stitches frequently comes across with a bigger sound that one would expect, even from a group of this stature.
Don’t let this one slip under the radar. It is an understated effort that punches above its weight.
The Unexplained Sounds Group, the netlabel run by sound artist Raffaele Pezzella, aka Sonologyst, has with its latest various artists compilation delved into the largely unexplored territory of contemporary experimental music from the African continent. For that reason alone the collection is worth hearing. But the music itself makes its own case for listening. The fourteen tracks give evidence of a creative ferment that meld Western electronics with the musical heritages of the various cultures of that highly diverse continent. A good number of the pieces included in the anthology are rooted in song — in the cyclical rhythms of a given region or in the melodic lines built on traditional modes. For example, several tracks, of which Ahmed Saleh’s Right Side is representative, feature North African vocal, flute or oud music as source material for processing or as a musical framework for electronic overlay and embellishment. Other pieces — AMET’s Imposer Le Savoir and In_o’s track, which seems to be based on a recording of Jiddu Krishnamurti speaking – represent a variety of musique concrete where radio transmissions or other samples are electronically rearranged. There also are more conventionally “experimental,” abstract electronic works, such as Abdellah M. Hassak’s two contributions. This is a fine collection that provides insight into an area of musical experiment that isn’t yet well-enough known.
Elephantine, an LP devoted to new music from Cairo guitarist/pianist/composer Maurce Louca, shows a different, jazz-influenced side of contemporary African music. For this recording, Louca put together a group of twelve international musicians in which North African oud, violin, and vocals are juxtaposed or mixed with Western jazz instrumentation of reeds, tuba, vibraphone, and bass and drums. The music is a successful, organic fusion of jazz timbres and improvisation with North African modality and rhythms.
Matthew Shipp respects the jazz tradition, but he is not bound to it in any manner. Signature is the latest release of his long-running trio, this version including Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. Despite a few walking bass lines and appealing microtunes, it would be inaccurate to say that any of these ten tracks truly swing. Shipp’s restless and intellectual approach to the piano does not allow him to rely on the same melodic structures for long, while Bisio and Baker are a free-improv backing section (the notion of “rhythm” is present but de-emphasized).
The self-titled introductory track is an example of Shipp’s ruminative stylings. Thoughtful jazz and classical motifs mix and match throughout his catchy yet unconventional leads. Baker remains unusually busy on this marginally-downtempo offering, while Bisio’s basswork involves sonorous slides as well as explorations that diverge from and then return to following Shipp. Perhaps the most aggressive piece is Flying Saucer, a rapid-fire exercise in disjoint pacing with an energy level that is in overdrive. Bisio and Baker providing their own iconoclastic deviations that make the sum of the parts sound as if all three performers are doing their own things. And yet, these complex units somehow fit together. Stage Ten is the most straight-ahead track of the bunch and even approaches a groove, but also includes subtle percussive abstractions from Shipp as well as more than a few fractured notes.
Go ahead and pick up any recording with Shipp as a leader that has been released over the last 30 years. I dare you to even try to find one isn’t good (spoiler alert: they are all good). But Signature is a high point for Shipp in a career that consists of a remarkable number of high points. There is an unusual amount and richness of content coming from this iteration of Shipp’s trio. Highly recommended.
A true avant-improv power trio, David Torn, Tim Berne, and Ches Smith, also known as Sun of Goldfinger, come together for their debut album, out March 1 on ECM Records. These individuals are no strangers to one another, working together in Berne’s Snakeoil outfit (with Torn producing the recent album and guesting on certain tracks). But as a sort-of pared-down version of that group, Sun of Goldfinger takes a different direction.
To that point, Torn, Berne, and Smith “jam” across the first (Eye Meddle) and third (Soften the Blow) of the three 22-minute tracks. Nonetheless, I use the quoted term colloquially. Unlike Berne’s tight systems and structures on the Snakeoil recordings, these pieces are more loosely organized. Torn provides his signature guitar effects and soundscapes along with long-held notes, loops, other and electronics. Berne sticks to sax, injecting quick runs and themes as well as solos and wails. Smith is restrained at times, holding up a groove for his bandmates. In fact, I would not be surprised if these efforts were mostly live-in-the-studio with a handful of overdubs.
Spartan, Before It Hit sits in the middle with ambiance and as well as fiery performances from guest guitarists Mike Baggetta and Ryan Ferreira, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and the Scorchio String Quartet. This piece is a Torn composition, and it would fit reasonably well on an earlier Torn release (or a Snakeoil release for that matter). The larger lineup allows for more dynamics and diversity – tension and release, danger and foreboding, and a few ripping group workouts. In a sense, this is atmospheric modern classical music played by a creative jazz orchestra, and is in contrast to the trippier elements of the other two tracks.
Guiseppe Pascucci and Vito Pesce, both of whom play guitar and electronics, are collaborators on these two simultaneously released and complementary albums, both of which were recorded live September 2016-February 2017. Pascucci and Pesce’s individual bios on the label’s site are vague almost to the vanishing point—which in a way is consistent with their music: on both albums they craft a collective sound in which each individual voice blends into an encompassing and satisfying whole.
On Nikola Was Right!—the Nikola in question being Tesla—the group sound is rich: resonant, full-ranged and sensuous. The album’s concise, intelligent soundscapes feature surging and cresting tones, complex harmonies wrapped in washes of sound folding back on itself, and crystalline, echoing chords and single-line runs splayed against electronic chaff and the occasional synthetic choir. Humasaurs, by contrast, is a spikier affair. Where Nikola Was Right! tends to efface the guitarishness of the guitars’ sound, Humasaurs pulls it into the foreground and revels in it. Pascucci and Pesce make each part of the instrument audible with aggressively staccato attacks, insistent rhythms, pointillistic textures and sharper-edged timbres. It’s a different proposition from what we hear on Nikola Was Right! and the perfect counterpart to that album. A fine matched pair.