A Quietus Review: Coin Coin Chapter Three – River Run Thee by Matana Roberts (February 4th, 2015)

“The South”, Matana Roberts intones portentously at the beginning of “All Is Written”, the opening track of the third chapter (of a planned 12!) in her Coin Coin series. With just two words, said in a voice laced with gravitas, Roberts outlines exactly what is to follow: a visceral, foreboding and unflinching evocation of the hideous history, and complex legacy, of the American slave trade. It’s her most harrowing work to date in the series, and as such, where chapters two and three retained much of the jazz tradition she was previously associated with (perhaps erroneously), River Run Thee is a broiling, uncompromising work that rips down genre barriers altogether.

Roberts’ saxophone still features prominently, of course, but it is one brush amongst many used to paint a vivid tapestry of the plight of so many people hauled in chains from Africa to states like Louisiana and Mississippi. Instead, Roberts turns to her voice, already a prominent feature on Chapters One and Two, but which is raised here to a Greek chorus that ties every strand of River Run Thee together. She alternates between mournful singing and looped and superimposed spoken texts sourced from the time she explores. Her voice is crystalline but laced with emotion, particularly on the ten minutes of ‘All Is Written’, on which she seems to encapsulate the feelings of so many in one phrase. “Why do we try so hard?” she moans, her voice cracking in the process. It’s a sentence that has echoed through centuries of civil rights struggles: why do we try so hard to make things better when the odds are stacked so resolutely against us? Why do we keep risking our lives to make a difference? Is the price worth paying? Of course, in the context of slavery, it takes on another meaning, questioning how it has come to pass that people have toiled away in backbreaking labour for the sole benefit of idle overlords.

‘All Is Written’ is nothing short of epic. Roberts’ imagery is vivid, and one can practically feel the beating southern sun and smell the swampy air as she evokes weeping willows and flashes of horrific violence, always present but alluded to rather than explicitly depicted, which is somehow all the more troubling. Throughout the album, the narratives glide across one another, taking the listener from a slave dhow in Zanzibar to a sun-baked plantation, touching on themes of religion, fate and justice, and the tracks duly bleed into one another, transforming River Run Thee into a symphonic collage on which wailing extended sax notes and lamenting voices raise themselves into the ether and seem to ask little more than “Why?”.

Without a band to work with, Roberts turns to electronics to bolster her singing and saxophone, and the results make River Run Thee the most vividly potent of the Coin Coin series (so far). The last moments of ‘All Is Written’ dissolve into a carpet of oscillating drones, as if the myriad voices are being swallowed by the storms of time, only to re-emerge as a ritualised chant as the track segues into its follow-up, ‘The Good Book Says’, backed by gristly bursts of sound that one would more expect to hear on a noise album. Allowing the tracks to seep seamlessly into one another allows Roberts’ to build a grandiose vision with the most minimal of means, and even if each song tells its own story, the elliptical nature of these vignettes works best when approached as a whole, especially when Roberts sweeps background drones, voices (sampled and her own) and sax together as on ‘Always Say Your Name’ and ‘Nema, Nema, Nema’.

Unlike the first two chapters, which dealt with more explicit stories delivered through more conventional musical structures, River Run Thee hones in on the tragedy and violence that lay at the core of the slave trade, coiled like murderous snakes. Matana Roberts’ music is similarly taut, bristling with angry textures and gasps of accusatory outbursts. Some of the samples even recall the most apocalyptic side of Constellation label-mates Godspeed You! Black Emperor, although Roberts’ music is more real, less portentous and ultimately more affecting. The album climaxes with the voice of Malcolm X as he attempts to deny accusations of racism, such a striking paradox that it projects Roberts’ portrayal of the African-American experience away from its painful past and into the unstable present. In light of recent events in Missouri, New York and elsewhere, no album you hear this year, or probably any other, will be as important and relevant as Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

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A Dusted Review: Return the Tides/ Ascension Suite & Holy Ghost by Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP (December 18th, 2014)

New Jersey-born, Chicago- and Brazil-based cornetist and electronic musician Rob Mazurek recorded Return the Tides just two weeks after the tragic passing of his mother, and this sense of loss traverses the album from start to finish, making it one of the most affecting avant-garde jazz albums I have ever heard. Avant-garde music is hardly renowned for its emotionality, with artists more concerned with loftier ideas than how sad or happy they feel. Mazurek has achieved something remarkable here: an album of intelligent, form-defying music that is guided by a very human heart.

From its very psychedelic sleeve to the tight melange of sounds contained in the wax,Return the Tides doesn’t really feel like a jazz album at all. Mazurek has been influenced by science fiction writers such as Stanislaw Lem and Samuel R Delany, and the printed work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, for quite some time, and this fascination with where the world is heading (if anywhere) has infused itself into his music, pushing him and his bands to try and reimagine the ever-shifting cosmos inside a studio or concert hall.

Almost inevitably, such a broad, voracious approach leads to the breakdown of barriers between genre, to the point that the title track emerges out of the collapsing remains of elegiac opener “Oh Mother (Angel’s Wings)” with crashing drum rolls and a see-sawing rabeca riff that could have been lifted straight out of Van der Graaf’s live album Vital. Indeed, much of Return the Tides has a strong progressive rock feel, bringing to mind live Larks’ Tongues Era-era King Crimson or the Soft Machine of Third, as well as VdG.

There is however, a more psychedelic edge to Mazurek and his band’s jazzy rock, mind, and although not as heavy, it’s not too much of a leap from Return the Tides to the Acid Mothers Temple of Univers Zen ou de Zéro à Zéro or early Hawkwind. The resemblance with heavy psychedelic rock is particularly strong around the mid- to end-point of tracks when the five musicians lock into rambunctious jams dominated by free-form sax squalling and heavy layers of distorted electronics.

Of course, this approach will be familiar to fans of free jazz as much as psych heads, and in both cases Mazurek connects with long-explored notions of cosmic transcendence and spirituality, something clear in the allusions to two great free spiritual jazz artists in the album’s title. More than just an elegy to his mother, Return the Tides is a reflection on the majesty and enormity of the universe and the fragility of life.

The Brazilian band assembled for the occasion is perfectly in synch with Mazurek’s emotions and drive, and the moment on “Let the Rain Fall Upwards” when six voices call out over a dense tapestry of synthesizer drone and shimmering textures is singularly thrilling, almost scary. The playing is impassioned throughout the albums hour-long duration, moving seamlessly from hard blowing ferocity to abstract contemplation, and even the heavily dominant drums and synths never become overbearing.

I can well picture the musicians at the end of the session, drained and sweating, driven to exhaustion by the whirlwind they’ve just put themselves through. Indeed, the last few minutes of “Reverse the Lightning” are particularly arresting, as chanting voices emerge from absolute silence to harmonize together, a last moment of peace after a storm of feeling.

A Dusted Review: Thumbscrew by Thumbscrew (August 7th, 2014)

I sometimes find guitar-bass-drums combinations in jazz to be rather risky, simply because the guitar can’t quite fill as much space as, say, a piano or saxophone, or at least not without overwhelming the other instruments or leading to a sort of macho blow-out in which drummer and guitarist end up fighting for room over an increasingly beleaguered bassist. To my mind, the best jazz guitar albums have always been fleshed out with other elements, such as in the case of classics such as Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman or Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue. So, I was almost tempted to expect this new trio to be somewhat on a hiding to nothing, except for one key factor: the guitarist in question is Mary Halvorson, perhaps the instrument’s greatest and most innovative ambassador on the modern American jazz scene.

In Thumbscrew, Halvorson regularly shines, whether when peppering the air with flurries of bird-call-like pizzicato notes (notably on the opener “Cheap Knock-Off”), leaning into moody low-end chords or allowing her guitar to dominate the sound space via open-string drones. One could even argue that she dominates the rhythm section occasionally subordinating itself to make room for her various interjections. Her real talent, however, and the essential force of Thumbscrew, is in the way she breaks out of jazz conventions and delves subtly but effectively into new realms. When her notes become more forceful and her chords more robust, the music ofThumbscrew veers closely to the territory of rock, with echoes of Larks Tongues In Aspic-era King Crimson or the post-rock scene in nearby Montreal. Of course, the rhythm section plays a huge part in this dexterity.

Michael Formanek struggles the most to impose himself when things get loud, but his slides down the neck of his upright bass combine with drops of guitar feedback from Halvorson to create a rambunctious haze of strings.During the album’s best moments, it’s a heady cocktail. Tomas Fujiwara, meanwhile, is an exciting drummer whose supple meanderings on the toms and forceful drives bind the whole album together, providing the bedrock for Halvorson’s thematic shifts.

Aside from Halvorson’s occasional Robert Fripp-like excursions, perhaps the comparison with avant-prog like King Crimson (or even, at a push, Van der Graaff Generator) works because the tracks on Thumbscrew are compositions rather than the improvisations often preferred by modern new jazz performers. All three musicians have established improv credentials, so it’s a bold step to try and explore a different facet, and one that almost certainly gives them more leeway to cross into other styles and even genres (although I swear I can detect a minute degree of ad libbing at play).

The problem with this approach, however, is two-fold. First, with such a limited palette to draw from, instrumentally, the tracks occasionally blend together, with few stand-out individual compositions, so it’s left to individual moments of brilliance (mostly from Halvorson) to really grab the attention, as on the Latin-tinged and incrementally molten and punkish “Still… Doesn’t Swing”. Equally, with nine tracks running at 56 minutes, Thumbscrew could have done with a bit more editing. This album lays down some exciting foundations, and I can’t wait to hear how they build on it, but it’s also proof that even oodles of talent and promise don’t necessarily coalesce into a wonderful finished product.

A Quietus Interview: Bohren & der Club of Gore (April 30th, 2014)

In 1991, German hardcore band Bohren & Der Club Of Gore made the radical decision to shed the shackles of the style they’d been playing for four years in favour of slow-moving, jazz and ambient inflected instrumental music. Since then, they have released eight albums, usually separated by three-to-four year gaps, but each containing exquisitely snail’s pace sonic constructions dominated by echoing piano, gently brushed drums, gently grinding bass throbs and mournful saxophone. Each album builds patiently, with every track a slow-burning capsule of melancholic atmosphere, and latest salvo Piano Nights is no exception. The title suggests a focus on the piano over the other instruments, a subtle shift that makes it possibly their most evocative album in years. The Quietus caught up with multi-instrumentalist and keyboardist Morten Gass to discuss the album, along the way learning that Bohren don’t see themselves as making dark music, compare their sound to elevator ambience and – perhaps surprisingly – don’t really consider their music in jazz terms.

Could you please provide me with a bit of background on the development of Piano Nights?

Morten Gass: It was three or even four years in the making. We put a lot of patience and research into the record, looking at studio techniques and instruments to get the easy listening sound that this album has. The title, Piano Nights, came first, as always with our records. We think of a title and then come up with the music for that title. It’s like a kind of theme, and this was the same with Piano Nights. So we needed a piano [laughs].

The title suggests the piano sits at the heart of the album. What drew you to taking this route?

MG: The album is not really based around the piano sound, it’s just in the title. We chose a piano because we always wanted to use a vibraphone, which we’d used before but you couldn’t really distinguish the sound between the Fender Rhodes and the vibraphone. It’s almost the same sound. That’s the main reason why we used the piano, and on this album, we actually used an acoustic piano.

Piano Nights has been described as your best album since Black Earth, which many consider to be your masterpiece. Would you agree? Do you have favourites among your albums?

MG: Favourites… [laughs]. Musicians always say “our last record is the best”, and for me it’s the same. We didn’t say that this record is as good as Black Earth, it’s something that record companies write to sell more records, I think. We never would describe the album in that way, it would be silly.

One word often associated with Bohren & Der Club of Gore is “dark”, and this album has titles like ‘Ganz Leise Kommt Die Nacht’ (‘Quiet Night Is Coming’) and ‘Fahr Zur Hölle’ (‘Road To Hell’). Do you think of yourselves as making nocturnal or dark music?

MG: That’s a tough question. We never think of ourselves as making dark music, it’s beautiful music, and you can listen to it at night. That’s maybe right, but is it dark? I don’t know. What’s dark music? It could mean goth music for some people, for others it’s black metal, and some think an album is dark because the artwork is dark or the musicians have black fingernails. It’s nice, warm music, and for me dark music is cold. In the end, it depends on the listener.

For me, the mood [of this album] is the same as on other records. Maybe it’s because of the sound of the record, which I would describe as “easy listening”, more than the other records. It’s more James Last than the other records [laughs].

Although it’s almost always purely instrumental, there is an emotional resonance to your music. Do you seek to convey certain feelings and thoughts through your music?

MG: We have no lyrics, just titles, and I like it when things are abstract. I don’t want to tell a story or force anyone towards a certain story. Everyone can do with the music what they want. That’s why it’s instrumental music in the end. When we write the music, we have a sort of theme, because we have the title. There are pictures in our minds when we think of a title, and the other guys in the band know in which direction we want to go with the music if we’ve got the title first. It is important, but not so much for the listener.

How do you compose and record your albums? Is there an element of improvisation at play?

MG: There is no improvisation. Like I did 30 years ago, playing on the guitar and getting to a riff, we play on the keys of the organ, vibraphone or piano, each of us at home, and come up with cool riffs, which we put together and make a sound. We make demos, and when everyone’s happy with a demo, we record it in our own basement studio, in a painful way.

I’m always amazed at the pace of your albums. Everything advances with incredible slowness and patience. Was that conscious decision from the start?

MG: It was our aim from the start, to play slow music, albums that feature only ballads. I’ve always liked ballads, and it’s a pity that every record only features one or maybe two.

Is it hard work to play so slowly?

MG: Of course, we don’t jump around! You need to concentrate and be a bit focused. On the other hand, you have lots of time to think about the next chord. But you have to concentrate on the music. If you play a wrong note, it lingers for ten seconds, and the audience will notice.

Interestingly, although your music is based around familiar instruments: guitar, bass, drums, sax, piano, people seem to find you very hard to define. I’ve heard you called dark ambient, post-metal, doom jazz, even… Do you think any of those or other terms apply? If not, how would you define your music?

MG: That’s a good question. We describe our music right now as elevator music [laughs]. That’s more a joke, but somehow it’s true. We try to be a bit original, we don’t want to be copycats, so it’s hard to describe the music because it’s a little bit weird. But, for us, it’s a good thing that it’s not so clear what style we play and that we don’t belong to a specific music scene. A black metal guy can listen to us, a jazz or pop guy can too.

You mentioned wanting to a band that only plays ballads, and your music makes me think of classic ballads like ‘Love and Hate’ by Jackie McLean and John Coltrane’s Balladsalbum. How do you think you fit into the jazz tradition, if at all?

MG: Hmm, the jazz tradition… It’s hard for us, because we’re not so much into jazz at all. We like the sound of jazz music, but we don’t like what they play. They’re all such good players, and we’re such bad players! We came from a hardcore band and we’re not masters of our instruments. We can play the way we do, so to describe our music as jazz would maybe be over the top. We understand why people make the connection, because we use the same instruments, which was our aim at the beginning, but I don’t know if it’s really jazz music. A real jazz guy would maybe laugh at our music.

Could you please tell me a bit about your background as a band? How did you come to evolve from a hardcore band into what you are today?

MG: We didn’t want to just cover other bands that we liked, we wanted to make something of our own. In about 1991, we chose to make something different. We were into so many other types of music, such as Sade and Chris Isaacs and even Detroit techno, so we thought “let’s make our own music”. We weren’t fed up with hardcore or metal, but for us it was boring to play that stuff, because we never reached the same level as our idols. It was fun to play, but there was no real joy for us. It wasn’t that much of a shift, really. We don’t play chart-friendly music. It’s underground, and just a few people like it. The only difference is the pace of the music.

Your previous record, Beileid, included one track, ‘Catch My Heart’ with vocals by Mike Patton, which was a first for Bohren & Der Club Of Gore. Is this a direction you might explore further?

MG: No, no. As you can see with Piano Nights, we don’t want to use vocals again. I see that as a kind of remix album, you know? Some people add breakbeats under their music, whereas we thought “let’s do something with vocals”. We always had the idea to cover this nice German metal ballad, and that’s why we needed vocals. At first, we hadn’t thought about Patton, we had someone like Amanda Lear in mind! But the final version was so slow and difficult, we needed somebody a little tougher when it comes to extremes. And Patton has a beautiful voice, and it was an honour to work with him.

In recent years, you seem to be performing live more often. Has your attitude to live shows changed?

MG: No, it’s the same as every year. We play around fifteen to twenty shows every year, and have done so for fifteen years or so. Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing more shows in England [that you feel we do more]. We don’t like to play more, but we don’t like to play less, it’s a perfect number. So, as always, we will now play our fifteen shows per year for the next three years. Why not? [laughs]

Bohren & Der Club Of Gore’s Piano Nights is out now via Ipecac

Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, May 2013 (May 31st, 2013)

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John Butcher, Tony Buck, Magda Mayas, Burkhard Stangl – Plume (Unsounds)

This lengthy album brings together two trios based around the backbone of saxophonist John Butcher and The Necks’ Tony Buck on drums. The first, ‘Flamme’ sees the pair joined by Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl, who plays peppery acoustic notes in a style that evokes Derek Bailey, minus the Englishman’s acerbic humour and penchant for pure dissonance. Indeed, the thirty-minute epic is remarkably restrained, with Stangl and Butcher exploring the outer limits of their instruments’ potential for quietness and diffuse textures, the former plucking abstractly at his strings, the latter releasing bubbly or hissing tones that sound as much like air or samples as they do sax notes. On both tracks, Tony Buck takes as much pleasure in gently coaxing unexpected sounds from his kit using bows and brushes as he does in building up any precise rhythmic direction. The second track, ‘Vellum’, another mighty, sprawling work, is the best of the two, as Buck and Butcher, joined here by pianist Magda Mayas, build up several heads of steam over nearly forty minutes, with Mayas countering Buck’s clatters and shakes and Butcher’s squalls with some righteous manipulation of her piano’s strings. These raucous passages are juxtaposed with several more intricate ones showcasing the trio’s ability to stretch out on each instrument in ways that are always both surprising and expertly balanced.

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Implodes – Recurring Dream (Kranky)

More moroseness, as Implodes follow on from their bleak debut Black Earth with another slab of woozy, despondent post-shoegaze noise rock. As with Vår [see below], the band’s influences are quite clear, nestling themselves as they do in the shadowy corner where gothic miserabilism nestles down discontentedly with fuzzed-out guitars and hushed vocals, a territory previously explored with much success by Cranes. Implodes don’t quite match their forbears for seething, haunted intensity, but there are many moments of true beauty on Recurring Dream, from the bleak, blasted pop-rock ‘Scattered in the Wind’ (surely a potential hit among fans of this type of music) to the seething metal storm of ‘Ex Mass’, which sounds like a Jesu outtake, via the deceptively graceful funereal march of ‘Sleepyheads’ and the towering mast of distortion and Peter Hook-inspired bass thumps that is ‘Necronomics’. On each track, the vocals are folded deep into the mix, imbuing everything with a ghostly, evasive atmosphere, like dry ice rolling over an audience at a rock concert. If you can imagine Sofia Coppola one day making a film that is not quite so obviously self-satisfied as most of her previous ones, she could very well choose Implodes to provide the soundtrack. It couldn’t be worse than sodding Phoenix…

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People of the North – Sub Contra (Thrill Jockey)

This side project by Kid Millions and Bobby Matador of Oneida doesn’t actually feel like one at all, such is the duo’s focus and commitment across the bruising 39 minutes of Sub Contra. People of the North certainly shares a lot of the pair’s parent band’s whacked-out psychedelicism, but, stripped to the bare bones of drums, synths, keys and vocals (with a few additional flourishes here and there from their Oneida pals), their music is more abrasive and minimalist. ‘Drama Class’ kicks the album off at a fractured, unpredictable pace, with Matador’s ramped-up organ weaving a curtain of malevolent drone that sits impassively in direct contrast with Millions’ constantly-shifting, freeform drum rolls and fills. Occasionally, Matador lurches forward to churn out some unintelligible lyrics, but for the most part, ‘Drama Class’ is as monomaniacal and immovable as a brick wall, the kind of intense drone metal perfected in less gleefully contrarian fashion by Windy and Carl. ‘Coal Baron’ is markedly more relaxed, the duo relying on drifting synth patterns, à la Klaus Schulze and low-end hum, with Kid Millions’s drums remarkable by their absence, while the two-part ‘Sub Contra’ suite sounds like Throbbing Gristle jamming with Han Bennink, all jazzy drums and bubbling, industrial drone. To wrap things up, Millions and Matador save the most expansive piece, ‘Osage Orange’, for last, taking the listener on a gruelling journey through repetitive looped electronics and warbling bass frequencies that morph into shimmery synths and a positively martial rhythmic thud before receding into near-silence as the fourteen minutes draw to a blissful close. People of the North don’t really break new ground in psychedelic music on Sub Contra, but they display a refreshingly gnarly take on the genre.

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Vår – No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers (Sacred Bones)

I have to hold my hand up here: I’m a bit of a sucker for moody, monochrome post-punk, and have been ever since I first discovered Joy Division as a perpetually morose 18-year-old. So, even if No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers comes on the back of much publicity surrounding singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s main band, Iceage, and steeped in a wealth immediately-recognisable influences, I can’t help but find myself enjoying nearly every track as if I was actually one of the pale young waifs that make up its target audience. The entire album is coated in an atmosphere of foggy disillusion, as Rønnenfelt and co-singer Loke Rahbek sketch out their mournful vignettes on wispy synths and the occasional pounding march of drum machine beats. Their two voices are nicely contrasted: Rønnenfelt, on the one hand, yelps like a frightened cousin of The Cure’s Robert Smith, whilst Rahbek possess the grimy snarl of a young Adrian Borland out of The Sound. Both bands are among Vår’s obvious influences, but the Danes carefully balance their clear debt to predecessors with a keen ear for melody and songcraft. The NME have got predictably over-excited and proclaimed No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers as the Faith for the 2010s generation but, while that’s more than a little hyperbolic, there are several great moments on the album, especially when the quartet rack up the beats and go (admittedly with downcast eyes and pouty lips) for the jugular, as on the delicious pair of post-punk pounders ‘The World Fell’ and ‘Pictures of Today / Victorial’.

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Jozef Van Wissem – Nihil Obstat (Important Records)

There is something so simple about Dutch lutist Jozef Van Wissem’s music, and yet it is surely this simplicity that makes it so instantly affecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the instrument he uses, the tracks on Nihil Obstat seem to be beamed in from a time long since passed, but that doesn’t mean they sound dated, quite the opposite. Van Wissem connects with a sort of collective sensitivity in a way that is not dissimilar to the liminal sensations initiated by the music of American primitive artists like John Fahey and Sandy Bull, especially as the latter was an adept of the oud, which carries a similar sound to the lute. Van Wissem’s notes on each of these six tracks are as clear as a mountain stream, and just as resonant, whether he’s unfurling deeply melancholic sentiments, such as on the harrowing ‘Apology’, or playing something bouncy and playful like the ten-minute madrigal ‘Where you lived and what you lived for’, with its hints of ‘Greensleeves’. There is an emotional potency on display on Nihil Obstat, like with fellow “somewhat minimalist” composer Richard Skelton’s electric guitar sketches or the hazy piano compositions on Lubomyr Melnyck’s recent Corollaries album, more proof of just how much one can achieve with minimal means.

A Dusted Review: Enormous Door by The Ex & Brass Unbound (May 19th, 2013)

The Ex may have been making music together for the last 34 years, but they have the dynamism and fearlessness of a bunch of young punk pups. Few of punk’s old guard have evolved so consistently and interestingly as the Dutch veterans, andEnormous Door gathers their multiple facets together whilst taking an exciting bound forward. Put simply, it ranks as one of their best-ever releases, and a high water mark of latter-era post-punk.

I’ll admit, when I saw that the imposingly-named Brass Unbound horn section includes notoriously ferocious saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, I wondered ifEnormous Door might not collapse into a macho slanging match between The Ex’s anarcho-punk guitars and the horn section, or worse, that the brass would submerge the rest of the instruments. That was a fool’s concern; anyone familiar with Gustafsson’s work, let alone that of the other Brass Unbound members (including legendary Chicago saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark), will know that there’s more to the man than free jazz squalling. Likewise, The Ex are hardly likely to play second fiddle to anyone, as displayed on their many previous collaborations. But, even with that in mind, the cohesion of the interplay on Enormous Door is striking. The horns are deployed elegantly, folded into The Ex’s punk drive to provide flourishes of colour and texture to flesh out the tracks.

“Last Famous Words” starts with a fuzzy, jumping guitar lead that displays the band’s love of North African music, allied to a loping, Mo Tucker-esque back-beat that is ramshackle, yet just tight enough to keep the track from collapsing. The horns combine neatly with Terrie Hessels, Arnold de Boer and Andy Moor’s scything guitar patterns, before kicking out some sharp solos on the bridge in a style vaguely reminiscent of James Chance & The Contortions, only with a greater sense of melody. On every track, Brass Unbound snake and slip around The Ex’s choppy rock tunes, bursting forward and then withdrawing with boundless energy. This comes to a remarkable head on the seven-minute “Bicycle Illusion,” which devolves into full-on noise-rock mode, with Gustafsson’s brittle sax dueling with seething, molten guitar riffs and solos, over the massed ranks of trumpet, trombone and martial drums. A cover of Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Belomi Benna,” meanwhile, shows the band in a more playful, funky mode, with soulful horn blasts and smoky, sensual vocals from drummer Katherina Bornefeld. The range of styles touched on and collided together on Enormous Door is remarkable, and it’s clear The Ex and Brass Unbound have worked this material into the ground. To top it all off, de Boer’s lyrics still contain enough of The Ex’s trademark anti-establishment ethos, with a touching dose of middle-aged angst thrown in (my favourite line is“Time has taken one of us/but she ain’t been counting right” from the superb “Every Sixth Is Cracked”).

Whether throwing out rambunctious post-punk (“Our Leaky Homes”), embracing jazzy pan-African funk (epic closer “Theme From Konono No 2”) or trying their hand at a bit of bouncy P-Funk, the band is always confident and seems to be having a fucking blast, making for some of the most joyously energetic music you’ll hear all year.

A Liminal Live Report: Jandek at Cafe Oto (April 10th, 2013)

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Cafe Oto is unsurprisingly packed for a rare London appearance by America’s most enigmatic singer-songwriter, Jandek, who came out of self-imposed isolation to perform his first concerts only in 2004, over 25 years after the release of his first album. Despite now putting a face to the name, Jandek remains as elusive as ever, and it’s surely as much this mystery as his – excellent – musical output that makes him such a draw. As the man himself wanders around Oto’s cramped interior, you can see the gazes of the punters follow his every step. I don’t think even Michael Gira got this much ogling when he was last here.

Before Jandek comes a set from Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, a Greek musician who uses a number of utensils – for want of a better word – to manipulate an amplified zither. Two carefully-placed E-bows draw quivering drones out of the strings, which Lazaridou-Chatzigoga then twists and contorts with sticks, bowls and other seemingly non-musical objects. I’m reminded instantly of a set I saw here not too long ago by Rie Nakajima and Angharad Davies in which the former used wind-up devices and bowls to create an ever-shifting sonic environment. While Lazaridou-Chatzigoga’s set has little of Nakajima’s playful unpredictability and environment-altering majesty, it is certainly an intriguing way to approach the zither, an instrument normally associated with traditional folk music from Greece but here transformed into something approaching an industrial drone machine. The resulting music is falteringly fragile, with many of the drones breaking apart with each new positioning of the E-bows or intrusion by a new utensil, and there is much to admire in Lazaridou-Chatzigoga’s calm precision, but at times the constant shifts become as much distracting as they are rewarding, I suppose, for the artist.

One of the great things about this new live incarnation of Jandek (studio albums are now sporadic, especially when stacked against the tower of live releases he’s put out since 2005), is that it is nigh-on impossible to predict what you will get when he performs. This is an artist for whom preconceptions should never apply, and if they are, you’re liable to end up feeling a tad stupid. It also means that every one of his aforementioned live albums are worth purchasing, because the differences between, say, Glasgow Friday and Manhattan Tuesday are remarkable, albeit tied together by his unique, atonal singing voice and skeletal song structures. Tonight, he’s left his guitar behind in favour of a gigantic electric piano and is bolstered by a sterling band comprised of regular collaborator Alex Neilson on drums, British whiz John Edwards on upright bass and Byron Wallen on trumpet and horn. The presence of brass is particularly welcome and surprising; to my knowledge (which, given Jandek’s prodigious output, is far from exhaustive), it’s a first.

Even confined to standing behind his large keyboard, Jandek cuts a singular figure: rake-thin and stern under his wide fedora hat. The music, guided ably by Neilson’s tight rolls and energetic breaks, is jazzy, with Edwards shining as he nimbly skips between deft string-plucking and moody drones. Meanwhile, Wallen laces the tracks with atmospheric horn lines as Jandek himself discreetly interjects with peppery piano notes that sound like they’re played on a vibraphone, Bobby Hutcherson-style. It’s like being transported back in time to a smoky basement jazz club in New York. This is night-time music, Jandek transformed into the weirdest of torch song crooners.

Of course, no fifties jazz balladeer would have got anywhere if they’d had a voice like Jandek’s. The man is an icon for all those who think feeling, emotion and intelligence should matter more than being able to hit a perfect C. His voice, with age, has become a strident moan, thick with feeling but rendered nebulous and intangible by his oblique yet despondent lyrics. In a million ways, this isn’t a combination that should work, but between his band’s tight musicianship and the man’s full-on dedication to his muse, it does, and then some. The tracks feel like improvisations, which they probably are to a degree, each musician listening keenly to his brethren, but at the same time there’s a definite structure, with Jandek weaving his words around Wallen, Edwards and Neilson’s minimalist tunes before taking a step back from the microphone and his lyric sheet to join in with his peppered notes. Someone once said Jandek plays instruments like a ten-year-old on his first attempt, revelling in the resultant sounds even if they’re not produced with any sort of virtuosity. It’s a fair enough description, but also one that fails to tap into the strange musicality of his work. Jandek knows what he’s doing, but maybe the rest of the world hasn’t caught up yet. When the set finishes, I’m left desperate for more, just so I can be a part of his strange, unsettling and beautiful universe a bit longer. At that point, the mystery around the man matters little, only the music, which, no matter who Jandek plays with, or how he approaches his sound, stylistically, is unique.

Photo by Joshua Harris