Free improv is a tricky genre to approach and appreciate. At its best, there are few musical styles more exhilarating and unpredictable, but at other times it can be a bit stuffy, with the musicians involved seemingly excessively engaged in mutual navel-gazing. Perhaps part of the problem (and I’m aware that, given the fact that some of the big names of free improv are geniuses like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Fred Frith and Roger Turner, it’s not a massive problem) is that most of us have little time for music being deconstructed in such a way. Even ears attuned to the just intonation of minimalism like something to hold onto, which is hard if the sax, drums or guitar are rendered almost unapproachable. In the best hands, this isn’t a problem. But there is a thin line between free-form and formless.
As such, the emergence of noise as a credible musical genre has had a truly liberating effect on improvisation. Which is where American duo Red Horse come into the picture. Essentially, what we have here is two powerhouses of free improv pushing the boat of excess out as far as they possibly can, delivering a madcap album on which the intricacies of the duo’s interplay is pitched headlong into the kind of excoriating noise that would make Merzbow clap his hands with joy. Indeed, the first thing I thought of on initially hearing this album, after the inconsequential opener (all 5 tracks are simply numbered: ‘Part 1′, ‘Part 2′, etc), was the great Japanese pioneer’s oft-overlooked jazz drummer homage album Doors Open at 8am. What noise music did was take the formlessness that occasionally blighted free improv and elevated it to an art form, shearing off a lot of the guff at the same time. On Doors Open at 8am, Merzbow took things full circle, stretching further back to reconnect with classic free jazz, and in particular the insane drummers (such as Bennink) that gave the music of Peter Brotzmann, Albert Ayler, Sonny Sharrock and Archie Shepp such a prominent kick.
Red Horse’s skin-pounder Eli Keszler righteously picks up on this quality. His drumming on this, the duo’s second self-titled opus, is something almost overwhelming in its relentless clatter; yet at the same time, he has the sensitivity to pull back and make room for his partner Steve Pyne when the music requires it. Sensitivity and aggression – I think one would be hard put to find two more essential ingredients in the creation of truly transcendental improvised music. Keszler has both in droves. On ‘Part 3′, his thundering is like a tornado, implacable and unrepentant, the kind of rhythmic whirlwind that evokes Klaus Schulze’s drumming on the seminal debut by Ash Ra Tempel, and you’re left wondering if this is a man or an octopus you’re listening to. On the album’s high-water mark, the near-15-minute epic ‘Part 4′, he initially reins in his brutish instincts, instead opting to jiggle bells and other assorted “discreet” percussive instruments whilst Pyne rips morose, inchoate drones from his guitar and other noise devices. As the piece evolves, Keszler’s insistent rhythms, on both drums and percussion, pick up pace, married beautifully to the intangible roar of Pyne through Keszler’s innate sense of melody and elegance.
And Pyne’s role in the gorgeous sonic volcano that is Red Horse cannot be overlooked. The association of just drums and guitar in noise rock is a common one, from Lightning Bolt to Arabrot, but if guitar may be the starting point, with his assortment of self-made instruments, Pyne transcends any sort of “standard” set-up, creating a dense wall of squalls, riffs and roars that Keszler is forced to twist and turn around to maintain the forward momentum. As such, there is a definite tension to this record that, more than anything else, elevates it above mere “improv”. This is the sound -nay, the beautiful cacophony- of two sonic scientists letting rip on their beleaguered gear after a long, tiresome day in the lab.
In such circumstances, it may be unfair to compare Red Horse to regular free improv. There’s something else going on here, something more primeval and brutal. Which is not to undermine the intelligence and subtlety of the music on the record, merely to emphasise that it appears to occur on some sort of other plane. Even when relaxing into drifting industrial ambience, as in the middle section of ‘Part 4′, where the duo allow themselves to amble in a shimmering fug of disconnected feedback, the urgency inherent to their music never abates, as if Keszler and Pyne are poised, coiled like rattlesnakes, ready to pounce and unleash the elements once again. Many bands and artists have tried to take the ethos of free improv and jazz and collide it with the sturm und drang of harsh noise but, that aforementioned album by Merzbow aside, I’ve rarely seen it done so successfully, and with such unfettered punk attitude, as Keszler and Pyne unleash on Red Horse.
Stream the album on the Type website.