AMN Reviews: Action Friend – bon•ho•mie (2018; Chant Records)

Master of Reality era Black Sabbath meets Mr. Bungle. Full stop.

Well, we can’t really end it there, so let’s go on. This Los Angeles quartet has been around for over a decade, though bon•ho•mie is just their third album and follows its predecessor after a seven-year pause. The lineup is that of a standard 70’s rock quartet – guitar / bass / keys / drums – though the approach here is not strictly retro. Sure, there is more than a little heady, bluesy riffing from guitarist Jeremy McLean that would make Tony Iommi nod in approval. But then you also have a John Zorn / Mike Patton avant-rock influence as well, with disjointed song structures, thrash-metal drives, and demented circus music. Not to mention a few psychedelic meanderings.

While all four members of the group are credited with vocals, nine of the album’s ten tracks are instrumental. Only on the finale, She Wasn’t, She Isn’t is there any singing, though with fairly standard trappings. But at that point, Action Friend has charmed you with how well they can paint outside the lines, that this more conventional approach is a pleasant diversion.

A standout track is the seven-minute Sewer Abuse, which features dense atmospherics, driving hard rock rhythms, cosmic synths, and a modicum of free improv. Another winner is LMNOP Whole, which varies between heavy riffing, three-chord acoustic guitar interludes, and motifs that fit in with those of Mr. Bungle’s California.

bon•ho•mie is a fun album that combines a number of familiar and experimental styles into an utterly enjoyable 40 minutes. On it, Action Friend proves that you don’t have to be outside all the time to innovate. Strong recommendation for avant-rock fans.


AMN Reviews: Big Heart Machine – Big Heart Machine (2018; Outside In Music)

On the self-titled debut of Big Heart Machine, multi-instrumentalist Brian Krock leads a big-band jazz ensemble (19 participants including a conductor) through eight labyrinthine tracks. Krock’s contributions are on saxophone, clarinet, flute, and recorder, while his four of bandmates play a similar set of instruments, four others focus on trumpet and flugelhorn, four more on trombone, and the rest on vibraphone, piano, synth, electric guitar, electric and upright bass, and (of course) drums and percussion. This results in a rich, orchestral sound with the underpinnings of a rock band. Notably, the album was produced by Darcy James Argue, and occupies a similar space as the latter’s Secret Society.

The opening track, Don’t Analyze is based around a climbing rhythm carried out by various subsets of the group, while all join in from time to time with a dense flourish. The lines are jagged and contrapuntal, taking sudden left turns yet leaving room for short solos.

The five-part Tamalpais follows. It begins with an atmospheric interlude led by woodwinds and bass.  This morphs into a rolling rhythm and then gently downtempo staccato vibes and guitar under a sax solo.  A guitar-led section varying from long-held notes to speed picking accompanies big-band jazz trappings in the background. The third part of the suite takes things down for a few minutes before a blues-oriented sax solo accompanies heavy guitar chording toward the end of the track, while the fourth offers waves of brass as well as a piano / vibes interlude with hints of prog-rock stylings.  The pieces ends downtempo with a focus on sax and a return to the opening atmospherics.

The final 20 minutes of the album is the most “conventional” (if anything about this album could fit that word).  Both the penultimate (Jelly Cat) and final (Mighty Purty) track have more of a big band feel and pacing. Nonetheless, the latter has its share of angular turns.

Big Heart Machine covers a great deal of ground in approximately 60 minutes. It wends its way through dozens of themes and motifs, sticking with each long enough to provide a sense of familiarity, but quickly moving on. Krock’s saxophone playing (assuming that he is the main soloist) has a distinctive voice and straddles the line between inside and outside playing. The heavy use of electric guitar adds another unique twist to the recording.

Needless to say, this is a huge release.  It is full of ideas and deftly executed, a candidate for album of the year.

AMN Reviews: Leslie Ross – Drop by Drop, Suddenly [XI Records XI 141]

Leslie Ross’s Drop by Drop, Suddenly is a set of texturally exploratory pieces for bassoon augmented by multiple microphones. As a performer, Ross, an instrument builder as well as an instrumentalist with experience in experimental, classical and early music, has focused her attention on the physical aspects of sound, particularly as manifested through the use of multiphonics and microtones. The two CDs making up this release attest to the variety of textural and acoustic effects that can be created with a single wind instrument, with and without real-time sound processing.

Although Ross deliberately eschews large-scale pitch movement and otherwise strips her basic sound material down to a minimum, her performance techniques and use of miking serve to unravel individual tones and reveal them as containing multitudes—complex sound spectra of varying internal consonance and dissonance. Ross pushes far into this territory in two ways: first, with all those microphones, which she places at tone-holes and feeds out to multiple speakers; and second, by reducing musical movement to increments. The microphones pick up minute differences of timbre and pitch across the instrument, differences created and enhanced by circular breathing and multiphonics. Out of this she’s able to create textures that follow the breath as they expand and contract in thickness, volume and frequency–much like the cycling of lungs filling and emptying of air.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bangladeafy – Ribboncutter (2018; Nefarious Industries)

Let’s get the obvious comparison to Ruins out of the way. Bangladeafy’s Jon Ehlers and Atif Haq certainly harken back to that other hyperactive bass / drums duo. But on Ribboncutter, their second album, they update the sound and approach of Tatsuya Yoshida and his varying compatriots while sticking to what is best described as an avant-prog approach. Or what might happen if the rhythm section of King Crimson overdosed on caffeine.

This effort consists of 10 tracks totaling less than 22 minutes. Each is a short burst of energy with the longest still under three minutes. Haq provides jagged rhythms landing somewhere between math rock and technical metal. Ehlers give his bass guitar a workout whether riffing, speed-picking, or providing an angular counterpoint to Haq’s complex pounding. Ehlers also doubles on synths, which adds an additional layer of texture and retro atmosphere to an otherwise frenetic offering.  He even provides death-metal vocals on one track, which fit the music well but are easy enough to ignore if that’s not your thing.

There is a lot to like here – a vague late-70’s Magma influence even. Beyond that, Ribboncutter is a fun (though not lighthearted) romp through a frenetic, anxiety-driven set. The album comes out on September 21.

AMN Reviews: Public Eyesore’s Twentieth Anniversary

Summer 2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of Public Eyesore, the experimental music label founded and run by instrument maker and sound artist Bryan Day. Public Eyesore began as a part of the DIY cassette underground, a network of artists like Day who were creating sounds far removed from the mainstream and thus were in need of distribution channels of their own. Public Eyesore was originally located in the US Midwest—Day started it when he lived in Decorah, Iowa in the 1990s—and over the course of moves through several states ended up in the San Francisco Bay area, Day’s current home base. Originally a vehicle for Day’s own work and for congenial artists from the Midwest, it now features improvisers and other experimentalists from around the world both on its regular Public Eyesore imprint and its Eh? CDR sublabel.

Guitarist Bill Brovold’s Michael Goldberg Variations [PE 142] answers the challenge Brovold’s friend Goldberg posed to him in the early 2000s: could Brovold create a minimalist work that wouldn’t be repetitive and “meandering?” Brovold’s response is this set of eleven duets and one trio. The variations in question are variations based on the very minimal, basic material of two notes a fourth apart. They serve as theme, framework and foundation: sometimes as a simple melody or melodic fragment, sometimes as an ostinato or quasi-arpeggio, sometimes as a harmonic guide. Each of the twelve variations introduces changes of texture, instrumentation, arrangement, and so forth, giving each individual piece its own character while at the same time binding them all with a common, recognizable likeness.

Michael Gendreau’s Polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado [PE 140] is—mostly–an essay in liminal sound. Gendreau is an acoustician working on noise design in built environments; the raw material of much of his work consists of low frequency vibrations and their relationship to the resonances of rooms. His recording features long stretches of sounds that exist at the margins of perception, some of which are more felt than heard. But beware: the apparent silence may be broken by an unexpected and jarring upsurge of loud sounds.

Live in Japan [eh?102] is a duo set from Tania Chen and Jon Leidecker, recorded in Osaka, Chiba and Tokyo in May 2017. Chen, a UK pianist who also makes sound with found objects, toys and lo-fi electronics, and Leidecker, an experimental electronics musician from San Francisco, both appear on a recently released recording of John Cage’s Electronic Music for Piano (which also includes David Toop and Thurston Moore); they also collaborated in 2016 on Chen’s Colour Fields for video and electronics, which is in some respects a foreshadowing of Live in Japan. As with Colour Fields the performances here are about the color and textural properties of electronic sounds (and occasionally Chen’s voice): their tone, saturation, density, and reciprocal cross-shadings.

Happy twentieth, and many more.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Wilhelm Matthies – Curtains-Live at Jefferson Park 3-3-18 [Pan y Rosas pyr255]

Milwaukee, Wisconsin experimental musician and visual artist Wilhelm Matthies is well-known for creating graphic scores of elegant design and legibility; these often feature fine brushwork and a grisaille palette that recalls East Asian ink painting. He also is the creator of a family of string instruments he calls mosesa, which he has been developing since 2012. The mosesa resembles something along the lines of a minimalist zither with flexible planking and resonating materials of various types, originally, plastic bottles; Matthies usually plays with a violin or erhu bow but the instrument can also be played directly with the hands. The mosesa featured on Curtains is the mosesa 9-CedarPlate, an instrument that employs cedar as its resonating material and features a single bridge (earlier versions of the mosesa had two bridges); in addition, Matthies augmented the basic sound of the mosesa with a chain of guitar pedals.

For the Jefferson Park set, Matthies interpreted his graphic score GC 1-19-18 (3). The most striking thing about the performance is the range of voices Matthies is able to elicit. Timbre predominates over pitch—the latter is rarely fixed and generally appears as a continuous gamut of microtonal shades, which Matthies produces through string-bending and bow articulation. At times this gives the mosesa a vina-like sound (the compass is reminiscent of the vina as well); at other times, it recalls the scratch and whine of the erhu. There is a vocal quality to much of the sound, a waxing and waning of range and intensity that mimics the dynamic cycle of an emotion; the electronic pedals serve to alter the textures and enhance the already considerable color variety inherent in the instrument alone.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: John Zorn and Simulacrum at Reggie’s Rock Club in Chicago

John Zorn does not visit Chicago all that often, but last night was his first of two appearances within a month. Zorn was joined by his organ-driven technical metal band Simulacrum for 90 minutes of intensity at Reggie’s Rock Club in the South Loop. Prior to the show, there was some uncertainty as to whether Zorn would actually perform, and if so for how long. In the past, he has relegated himself to the role of composer and watched from backstage as others perform his works, maybe joining in for a few minutes of improvisation at most.

But at 9pm sharp, Zorn walked onto the stage alone, dressed in his usual camo pants with beat-up sax in hand, and broke into a rapid-fire wailing. After some banter with the crowd and the people running the venue’s sound about buzzing from the monitors, he continued through a solo set full of angularities and extended techniques. Then, calling Simulacrum drummer Kenny Grohowski out, the two performed a joint improvisation in the same style for several minutes. The band’s organist, John Medeski, then joined in. This seemed to trigger Zorn to switch to a more melodic and plaintive approach. After about 25 minutes from the start of the show, Simulacrum’s final member, guitarist Matt Hollenberg hit the stage. This was Zorn’s cue to leave, and the trio took over for the remaining 70 minutes.

Simulacrum plays Zorn’s compositions and arrangements, though this might not be apparent at first. The group certainly hit all the high points that a progressive metal or math rock outfit might focus on – heavy riffing, pounding rhythms, and rapid-fire leads. But as you peel the Simulacrum onion, differences emerge. The most apparent is the non-traditional use of organ instead of bass guitar. Medeski covered both basslines and swirling leads, not to mention sweeping chords. Placed higher in the mix live than on recordings, his contributions were more apparent. He and Hollenberg often doubled up on melodies but complemented each other as well. Grohowski was an octopus behind the drum kit, his casual bearing belying a near-overwhelming intensity. His non-stop action encompassed virtually every spare second with a break, fill, or muscular double-bass work.

But hidden within Simulacrum’s overpowering presence is Zorn’s distinctive writing. After the audience was flattened by a Medeski / Grohowski rhythm, Hollenberg would peel off a Middle-Eastern tinged melody that would fit into Zorn’s Masada or Book of Angels oeuvre. The group stuck mostly to the material on their self-titled first release from 2015, but included two or three tracks from their latter five albums.

After a brief encore, Zorn joined the trio for a bow to solid appreciation from the crown of about 120. As alluded to above, Zorn announced that he will be returning to Chicago for six hours of performances at the MCA on September 9, featuring 12 different ensembles that pair his varied compositions with paintings.