AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Matt Mitchell – Oblong Aplomb (2023; Out of Your Head Records)

Matt Mitchell is all about patterns. He plays them for a few bars and moves on. But each is quite technical and intricate, so much so that by the time you start getting your head around what he is doing on one, he is on to the next. Oblong Aplomb, a double album that pairs Mitchell in duos with drummers Kate Gentile and Ches Smith, is nothing short of brain food for those looking to add some unmitigated complexity to their day.

The first half is with Mitchell and Gentile. Their 6CD set Snark Horse is as good a reference point as any for this collaboration. Gentile’s relentlessness and penchant for busyness couple hand-in-glove with Mitchell’s densely-packed and jagged compositions. One of the more remarkable characteristics of hearing these two together is how they navigate shifts in tempo – they are so seamless that the listener might not notice the shifts happening. For the most part, Mitchell and Gentile maintain a structured approach with improvisation of varying degrees of freedom here and there.

The second half features Mitchell with Smith. At the surface level, these pieces seem quite similar to their predecessors. One notable departure, however, is that Smith employs a broader palette of instruments, including gongs, percussion, and vibraphone. Another is the incorporation of slower and quieter passages. This leads to only a slightly different feel, as Mitchell’s writing and playing still dominate the mix.

The Mitchell approach can be described in the same way as that of another well-known pianist with the name of Matthew…Shipp. Both are percussive, with elaborate lines, almost to the point of their output resembling chamber music more than jazz or whatever avant-unclassifiable venture on which they have set forth. Regardless, Mitchell is more than just a compositional wunderkind, as he exhibits a symbiotic relationship with both Gentile and Smith on this release.

Oblong Aplomb of course comes very highly recommended and will be released April 14 by Out Of Your Head Records.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Mark Sanders / Emil Karlsen – Muted Language (2023; Bead Records)

This meeting of two drummers is nothing but polyrhythmic goodness from the densely-packed and appropriately-titled The Opening to the slightly more sparse Diversions. Emil Karlsen is a relative newcomer to the UK free improv scene, recently arriving from Norway. Mark Sanders has an absolutely massive discography, having played with dozens of like-minded folks from both sides of the Atlantic.

Muted Language is six short-to-medium-length pieces that showcase these gentlemen on their kits as well as wood blocks and other types of percussion. One of the more notable features is how they incorporate extended techniques – such as rubbing, brushing, and scratching – into the mix in a rather seamless fashion. Another area of distinction is the heavy use of cymbals, to the point where those implements provide the main rhythmic structure while the drums are used for exploration. What you won’t hear much of is a steady beat. Karlsen and Sanders engage in a dialog and play off of one another, but do so individualistically and to the point that either’s drum track taken alone would be an interesting listen.

Muted Language will be released on April 23 from Bead Records.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Kelados – The Night Glows (2023; Reverse Alignment)

As described in the liner notes, Kelados (Matúš Fabian) recorded this album “using analogue and modular synths, electric guitar, contact mics, field recordings, hydrophone, geophone, electronics.” The result is a darkly wafting set of waves and drones accompanied by rich textures and background noises.

The seven untitled tracks are all about 5-10 minutes long. Each has its own distinct character, typically a quasi-repeating cycle of sounds. As a whole, The Night Glows is an immersive effort, thick with rolling structures and lilting haziness.

Untitled 2 is a prime example of the album’s focus, beginning with fire-like crackling, wind, and a repeating bell. A massive and slowly-oscillating drone builds to accompany the crackling. Untitled 4 is another singular track with insect-like noises that combine with layered synth and sparse, aleatoric found-object percussion. Untitled 5 is more experimental yet quieter, with windswept soundscapes and lurking dangers. The longest piece, Untitled 6, exhibits grinding textures and plenty of electroacoustic activity. Subtle, organ-like chords haunt the background. Untitled 7 caps things off with field recordings of voices coupled with sculpted static and shifting layers.

The Night Glows is another highly recommended album from Reverse Alignment. It is also one that requires listening at volume to appreciate its subtleties.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Catherine Sikora – Winter Solos (2022; Bandcamp)

Every day for the entire month of December, saxophonist Catherine Sikora recorded a solo piece. Most are short at around three minutes, with the notable exception of the very first which is over five times as long. She started releasing these almost in real time, building a double album’s worth of material day by day.

Sikora is well-known as a creative composer, improviser, and performer, with the ability to express a wide range of tones, colors, and emotions. Here, she employs non-repeating melodies and drones with a combination of softer and harsher blowing that encompasses traditional playing as well as extended techniques.

Case in point, her subtlety is apparent throughout, as she is muscular and assertive without overt aggression. She makes her statements eschewing pretension. On some of the shorter tracks, her playing floats gently and leaves plenty of open space between notes. But this never becomes pastoral or tuneful, as it retains a quiet edginess.

Indeed, she uses her instrument to cry out from time to time, perhaps expressing an underlying sadness or acknowledging a loss. She is not trying to hide or mask anything and instead is accepting of these feelings.

Catherine Sikora is an intelligent and insightful performer, and this is never more apparent when all other instrumentation is stripped away and the listener is forced to hear her in raw form. There is much more to absorb from and say about Winter Solos, but – in short – this album is a real treat.

Create some space for yourself, be present, and listen deeply.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Cynic’s Focus 30 Years Later

In the early 1990s, death metal got interesting. Outfits like Gorguts, Death, Pestilence, Meshugah, and Atheist pioneered what would later be called progressive death metal or technical death metal. This amalgam of styles typically leaned on King Crimson as much as Slayer, with complex rhythms and solos, longish instrumental breaks, and extremely fast drumming. Occasionally a keyboard or more esoteric instrument might enter the mix, along with the obligatory (and largely unintelligible) growling.*

But of this initial wave of groups, there is one that still stands out – not only for being unabashedly on the progressive side of things but also because of the tragedy that befell two of its members.

Cynic’s Focus came out in 1993 to acclaim from fans of bands like Watchtower and Sieges Even, two groups that had the “technical” and “progressive” down, but not the death. Unlike their peers, Cynic incorporated jazz-oriented breaks as well as the interlocking guitar-work of 1980s Crimson. They also employed two styles of vocals – the typical growling as well as a smoother but heavily vocoder-processed (almost robotic) version. The group even threw in a hint of non-Western percussion.

Veil of Maya famous starts off the album with keyboards and processed vocals accompanied by heavy chording from both guitarists. The two different vocal styles trade lines above a rhythmically sophisticated main riff. Then the surprise – a jazz-like interlude of contrapuntal playing from both guitarists and the bassist on the Chapman Stick. Veil of Maya also includes an extremely well-crafted guitar solo. It is only a few seconds long, but varies its tempo and has an “inside-out” character that is oddly compelling.

Paul Masvidal led the band, singing and playing guitar. Jason Gobel was the second guitarist, while Sean Malone was on bass and the aforementioned Stick, and Sean Reinhart was on drums. Masvidal and Reinhart had just finished a stint in Death, while the previous Cynic bassist, Tony Choy, had gone on to play with Atheist. Like many music scenes of note, the bands in this one were linked by common members.

The lyrics, written by Masvidal, are thoughtful and hint at Eastern philosophies. After several tracks exploring the nature of consciousness, the album ends with, How Could I?, an ode to humility and accepting one’s emotions. This content is in stark contrast with the typical metal fare.

Focus is brief by today’s standards, running only 35 minutes. But it was a short burst of labyrinthine energy that became something of a culture bearer. Nonetheless, despite some glowing appreciation for the album at the time (myself included), the death metal community did not fully accept Cynic.

I found this out first-hand when I saw Cynic perform in Berkeley, California on their 1994 tour. They played as a five-piece with Masvidal handling processed vocals and a young woman on keyboards and death growls. The crowd was split – there were plenty of fans but a notable (and vocal) minority were not. I left after their 45-minute set, happy to have seen them and not terribly interested in the main act.

Cynic broke up shortly thereafter. They were musicians who just wanted to make music. Perhaps the mixed response they received while on the road was a bit much.

After a dozen or so years of endeavoring in other projects, Cynic reunited for live performances and a small number of albums and EPs. While I’ve heard most of these once or twice and they all get a decent thumbs up, none have the sheer power of Focus. Nor did they contribute to launching an entire genre of music.

In 2020, dual tragedies struck. In January, Reinhart suffered a fatal rupture to his aorta. He was only 48. I have one image of Reinhart etched in my mind – seeing him kicking a soccer ball against the Berkeley venue wall as I walked up to it. Whether he was just killing time or distracting himself before going on stage, I’ll never know.

In December of the same year, Sean Malone died of suicide.** He had been grieving over the loss of his mother and of Reinhart. It is speculated that the pandemic had also upended his life. He was 50. Over the course of 11 months, both members of one of the least recognized creative rhythm sections to play in a metal band were gone.

In 2018, Focus was reissued with three additional remixed tracks and three more new tracks. The new tracks lack Malone’s contributions. Cynic is currently touring for the first time since the passing of Reinhart and Malone, and will be playing Focus in its entirety.

* Death metal growls are also referred to as “cookie monster vocals”, a term viewed as pejorative by some. When I first heard it used in reference to said vocals, I laughed out loud because it was such an apropos description. I use the term fondly and without animus.

** Mental health is a serious topic and there should be no shame or stigma involved.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Lina Allemano Four – Pipe Dream (2023; Lumo Records)

Pipe Dream, the upcoming new album from the Lina Allemano Four, gets going in earnest toward the end of its first track, Banana Canon. Trumpet player and leader Allemano duels with saxophonist Brodie West, trading gritty overlapping solos. The contributions of each of these two would be compelling enough on their own, but the way that they combine contrapuntally is just sublime. Bandmates Nick Fraser on drums and Andrew Downing on double bass provide a rolling landscape for these explorations.

Never one to stick to too much structure or rely on all-out free improv, Allemano once again proves herself a cerebral composer and deft performer as this longstanding quartet works its way through her material. They are more of an avant chamber jazz group than anything else, eschewing simple grooves and vamps for music of a much more challenging character.

Indeed, the structural aspects of Pipe Dream are some of the most orchestral heard from Allemano yet. She asks a lot from this relatively small outfit but they are more than suited to meet her requirements. Case in point, West and Allemano trade high-low patterns on Dragon Fruit while the rhythm section employs a pulse track that is broken up by Fraser’s busy percussion. The feel is unconventional and perhaps even a bit uncomfortable while retaining musicality. A long, quiet passage stops short of being ambient and instead features oscillations, a few non-repeating themes, and a patch of discordance.

The second half of the album is a four-track suite, each of which have distinct introductory solos from Allemano, West, Downing, and then Fraser, respectively. One can easily imagine the playful and complex lines of Longing being performed by a string quartet. West and Allemano once again collaborate with loosely-coupled melodies. Trying Not to Freak Out contrasts more structured passages that build tension with a few that are blasts of open-ended, angular energy (the freak-outs, I presume). Hunger and Murder takes on a darker tone that is apropos of its title. It is slow and moody, with drones from Allemano and Downing as well as more overt activity from West and Fraser. All of this leads to a mournful bass pattern over which the group makes skittering and chaotic breaks. Doom and Doomer caps things off with another high-low motif from West, Allemano, and Downing that eventually turns into a repeated staccato pattern. The track progresses with an ominously bouncing bass line supporting more joint soloing from Allemano and West.

Pipe Dream will be released on May 5 by Lumo Records. This lineup has been together for 18 years, putting out 7 albums. They continue to grow and evolve on each one, this being no exception. An excellent release.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Vance Provey Whit Dickey Spin Dunbar – 1983-Motifs 2023 [NHIC Records NHIC-017]

Forty years after it was recorded in a New York studio, the New Haven Improvisers Collective’s record label released this interesting, 1983 trumpet trio recording by trumpeter/composer Vance Provey, drummer Whit Dickey, and double bassist Spin Dunbar. This was a working trio that met when Dickey and Dunbar were students at Bennington College, where Provey was a resident artist and teaching assistant. The recording captured them at early stages in their creative lives. Provey is currently active in Connecticut, while Dickey went on to play with Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman, David S. Ware, and others. Dunbar, who had to give up music after an accident, is now a stained glass artist in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The chemistry binding the three together is apparent from this relatively short (ca. 30 minutes long) recording, which focuses on Provey’s motif-centered compositions. Each of the five motifs is organized by Provey’s melodic themes, mostly played in mid-register. Structurally, Provey alternates long tones with shorter bursts of notes, setting up a tension internal to the lead line; the lack of a harmony instrument allows him the freedom to develop the line in creative ways. Dunbar’s bass is placed in contrapuntal opposition to the trumpet; with the exception of the bowed drone tone that forms the foundation of Motif 1, Dunbar plays an energetic, agitated line that works in close cooperation with Dickey’s free-rhythms. On Motif 4 this group dynamic works out to a propulsive bass-and-drum attack on the one side, counterbalancing Provey’s long tones on the other; on the more reflective Motif 5, the trio’s restlessness is more widely dispersed throughout musical space. All told these are solid performances, happily rescued from obscurity.
Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Iceberg – Final Thaw (2022; Astral Spirits)

I’ve had this album in hand for the better part of a year and finally got down to listening to it recently. The result is…regret that I waited so long. Final Thaw is a really nice EP-length offering of free improv and weirdo folk that should have gotten more noise upon release.

Consisting of Jayson Gerycz on drums and percussion, Dylan Baldi on sax, and John Kolodij guitar, this trio puts forward two long tracks with similar patterns of a slow start followed by an all-out crescendo.

Baldi’s playing on God Moves on the Water is plaintive at first with Gerycz contributing aleatoric percussion over a bassy drone. Kolodij joins on electric guitar as the tempo increases and the group gets noisier, busier, and goes outside. By its climax at the 12-minute mark, Iceberg is engaging in a free-form skronk fest with wild sax, distorted speed-picked guitar, and densely-packed drumming.

Harland Wolff Blues also sets off with a deliberately-paced and slightly ominous keyboard theme (either keyboards are uncredited or Kolodij runs his guitar through effects). Kolodij strums chords while Baldi softly blows an iconic, if not anthemic, melody to quiet percussion. This evolves into a gritty sax solo and more assertive chording as Gerycz turns up the heat. The instruments combine into a heady mix of noise walls and angular soloing.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra – Lightning Dreamers (2023; International Anthem)

Rob Mazurek is a polymath who performs, composes, improvises, writes poetry, and paints. Here, he brings back his long-running Exploding Star Orchestra with a new lineup for its second release on International Anthem.

Active since 2005, the group now consists of Mazurek on trumpet, voice, launeddas, and electronics, Jeff Parker on guitar, Craig Taborn on Wurlitzer and Moog, Angelica Sanchez on Wurlitzer, piano, and Moog, Damon Locks on voice and electronics, Gerald Cleaver on drums, Mauricio Takara on percussion, and Nicole Mitchell on flute and voice. That is quite a rogues gallery of modern creative music.

Future Shaman kicks off the album with a steady drum beat and a funky keyboard riff. But the first couple of minutes of this track are not representative of the album as a whole, or even the rest of the track. Though it is arguably the most conventional piece on Lightning Dreamers, it features an angular outside solo from Parker around the halfway mark and then a similarly exploratory turn from either Taborn or Sanchez followed by Mazurek on trumpet.

Thus, while its catchy nature makes Future Shaman a suitable toe-tapping lead, the following tracks move in a less structured and more heady direction. To that point, Dream Sleeper incorporates something akin to free improv or at least organized chaos. The group invokes a Sun Ra vibe which remains for most of the rest of the album, varying between densely-packed and spacious (and spacey) passages.

Locks’ vocals are sparse and unobtrusive. His contributions harken to his recent efforts leading the Black Monument Ensemble. Mazurek’s prior work can also be heard. Shape Shifter exhibits a lead melody reminiscent of Mazurek’s Sao Paulo Underground and his Return the Tides album.

At 14 minutes, Black River is the longest track and also the most open-ended. Locks provides spoken-word poetry which evolves into a slow-paced solo from Parker over an elaborate jam session from the remaining members. Toward the end, Sanchez and Mitchell combine in a compelling piano riff / flute solo supported by Taborn and the percussionists.

Lightning Dreamers manages to cleave a path between fresh and retro sounds, composition and improvisation, complexity and groove. It is a trippy yet brainy release that is an easy album of the year candidate.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Evan Lipson – Echo Chamber [Public Eyesore PE152]

In September 2021, Knoxville, Tennessee double bassist Evan Lipson entered a disused World War II-era ordnance storage bunker in Chattanooga’s Enterprise South Nature Park to record the long improvisation aptly titled Echo Chamber. The resonance of the bunker is remarkable, as can readily be heard in the first few minutes of the recording: miscellaneous, difficult-to-attribute sounds multiply and fall back on themselves, firmly establishing the bunker’s interior as an active participant in the performance that follows. And what follows is a stunning, virtuoso extraction of sounds from the entire, expansive range of the double bass, which Lipson plays with a variety of conventional and extended techniques. He is apt to approach the bass as a percussion instrument, using the bow to strike the strings as well as other points along its body, but is just as inclined to pull sharp, brittle overtones from it with bow and fingers, or to pluck upper register harmonies against a bowed, low register drone tone. These, along with a robust, hymn-like passage for bowed chords, exploit the resonant potential of the space to its fullest. An exciting performance indeed.

Daniel Barbiero