Part of Constellations’ Musique Fragile series and included in a box with albums by Pacha and Kanada 70, Transit of Venus actually works best as a stand-alone album and, considered this way, it’s one of the best records released this year, and I don’t just say that because I think everything Tony Conrad does is the equivalent of musical gold. However, with a solo Conrad album, you tend to know what you’re going to get, even if that doesn’t stop the results being startling and wondrous: looped, multi-layered violin drones piled up on top of one another with mathematical precision and almost punk-like intensity. When he’s pitched into a collaboration with other composers or a “rock” band such as Hangedup, the results can be altogether more surprising and freeform. For me, his work with Krautrock experimentalists Faust remains one of his definitive statements, for his take on minimalism has always had intrinsic ties to rock and roll.
Even so, at first glance Hangedup, a duo usually associated with Montreal’s “post-rock” scene, seem a rather odd choice for the doyen of avant-garde music to associate with. I know a lot of the Constellation bands like to experiment, and of course Godspeed You! Black Emperor showed their good taste by bringing Philip Jeck, Keiji Haino and John Butcher to All Tomorrow’s Parties two years ago, but a lot of the actual music is generally defined by gentle, melodic, prettiness. However, a bit of digging shows that drummer Eric Craven and violist Genevieve Heistek have long dappled in the most leftfield of their scene’s bands, from HRSTA to Set Fire to Flames, and their output as a duo is frenetic, discordant, drenched in feedback and pleasingly abrasive. A sort of more graceful Lightning Bolt, if you will. If I was dubious at first, repeated listens to Transit of Venus demonstrates that Hangedup and Tony Conrad are a pretty solid fit.
What makes it such is that, in many ways, this is an album defined by conflict. I don’t mean to suggest that it was anything but a harmonious recording process, but these are two very different acts: Hangedup a high-octane noise-rock duo and Tony Conrad an intellectually-driven minimalist. As such, the tracks sway and sashay between the two halves, as both try to impose their will on music that feels improvised and therefore open to such a thrilling tug of war. ‘Flying Fast N Furious’, which opens the album feels very Hangedup, with tornado drums and sliding lines of distorted viola. Conrad’s presence is elusive, ghostly, peppered hints at drone littered around Hangedup vibrant sturm und drang. ‘Transit of Venus’, however, if dominated by Conrad’s see-sawing violin loops, as he seemingly forces Heistek and Craven, by sheer monomaniacal dedication to his one-note drones, to lock into the Krautrock groove that best amplifies his mathematical approach. On the epic ‘Gentil the Unlucky Astronomer’, both approaches collide marvellously, the piece lurching between minimalist repetitions and free-form blowouts. It is little surprise to learn that these tracks were improvised, but very impressive that the trio have accomplished it so well. Transit of Venus is weird, celebratory and above all packs a ferocious punch.