Posts filed under ‘CD/music reviews’

The Brain-Frying World of Brandon Seabrook

Brandon SeabrookDie Trommel Fatale (New Atlantis, 2017)

I’ve previously written about Brandon Seabrook’s aggressive approach to guitar. I’d observed that he adds a keen edge to Mostly Other People Do the Killing and a choppy energy to Eivind Opsvik’s albums.

That was before I heard his solo stuff. Good gawd.

That’s from the 2014 album Sylphid Vitalizers, and it consists of Seabrook on many overdubbed banjos — each played in real time — with the help of a drum machine. Two of the album’s five tracks also include the menacing shred of Seabrook’s guitar.

seabrook-dieIf Seabrook slows down a little on his new album, Die Trommel Fatale, it’s only because he’s now painting with a wider range of colors, making use of a full band that includes three string players.

But the craziness is not dialed down. His guitar still throws ninja stars at your face, complex and intentionally ugly melodies that are going to hurt if you don’t brace yourself. The rough edge gets even rougher with the contributions of vocalist Chuck Bettis — grunting and shrieking in Yamataka Eye mode — and the doomsday drumming of Sam Ospovat and Dave Treut.

The strings sweeten the mix here and there (Marika Hughes on cello and Opsvik on bass), but they, too, can be applied to aggressive effect, as you can hear deep in the mix on “Clangorous Vistas.”

 
I wrote the other day about Burning Ghosts, the band adeptly mixing jazz and metal. Seabrook is doing the same, you might say, but drawing from different pools of “jazz” and “metal.”

Burning Ghosts is about metal, with its stonewall guitars and rumbling demonic aesthetic. Seabrook taps a cousin music that’s closer to punk and noise. It’s just as hardcore but more trebly, with high-strung guitars articulating melodies that dig up as much darkness and discomfort as possible.

Some guys, when they play this kind of stuff — you think “Whoa. Where’d that come from?” Bill Frisell in Naked City comes to mind. Not Seabrook. I’d seen only a few pictures of him before, but once I dropped the needle on Die Trommel Fatale, it was like: “Oh yeah. I shoulda guessed.”

Moments not to miss include the digitized voice “solo” on “Quickstep Grotesquerie,” the lingering prog/metal of “The Greatest Bile, Part 2,” and the channel-flipping blend of jazzy strings, gloopy electronics, and shredding guitar on “Abscessed Pettifogger.”

I’ll leave you with a promo video for “Emotional Cleavage.” Be warned: It’s a little bit gruesome, although the ending is priceless.

 
Seabrook also has a trio album coming out in October. Catch a preview on Bandcamp.

July 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm Leave a comment

Metal-Jazz Done Right

Burning Ghosts play at the Hemlock Tavern (1131 Polk St., San Francisco) on Thursday, May 13. Openers include The Lake Millions, veterans of KZSU’s Day of Noise.

Burning GhostsReclamation (Tzadik, 2017)

burning-reclamationNot every moment of Reclamation as in-your-face as the promo video suggests, but Burning Ghosts‘ new album, released last Friday on Tzadik, does deliver on its claims of mixing metal with jazz.

Descriptions like that always leave me skeptical, since the mixing of any two genres tends to select the weakest tonics from either side, particularly the jazz. (That was especially true of jazz/hip-hop mashups, as I often discussed with KZSU DJ M-Smooth in the mid-2000s.)

But this mix works. Daniel Rosenboom‘s trumpet is at the center of the music, played in bright, crisp tones that very much signal “jazz.” On the metal side, it’s Jake Vossler and Richard Giddens swimming in the throttling smoke of guitar and bass, driven by Aaron McLendon on the drum kit.

Rosenboom has explored similar territory with the Los Angeles band DR. MiNT, mixing jazz horns and outer-limits guitar. He’s at home here, as you can hear on “FTOF,” a track that gets Reclamation off to a zooming start.

The opening of “Harbinger,” meanwhile, is a slow drag through thick brambles, leading to a shredding attack:

Rosenboom describes Burning Ghosts as an activist band, and you can hear traces of that in the dire urgency of “The War Machine” and the scorching grandeur of “Revolution.” There’s anger in here, but it’s packed with brainy and adept musicianship.

I get a jazzier vibe from the band’s 2016 Curve Line Space performances, with Tina Raymond on drums and Tim Lefebvre (of Donny McCaslin’s band) on bass. On Reclamation, Rosenboom and Vossler are more intent on going for the jugular, airing the band’s metal side. But don’t discount the jazzy moments like the bass-drums shuffle of “Gaslight” and even the light-touch rhythm section backing the guitar shredding on “Catalyst.”

July 5, 2017 at 11:14 pm Leave a comment

Nicole Mitchell & Afro-Futurism

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth EnsembleMandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2016)

Mandorla-Awakening-cover-2.jpg“Egoes War,” a seething fog of darkness eventually cut by Alex Wing’s distorted, yelping guitar, is a dramatic and fitting opening to Mandorla Awakening II, Nicole Mitchell’s latest sci-fi-inspired album. Mitchell’s flute is a key part of the tumult, dancing in aggressive spirals.

This is familiar turf for Mitchell. I remember being impressed by her album Xenogenesis Suite (Firehouse 12, 2008), based on Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, in which Earth encounters an alien race that advances itself by swapping genes with other species. The track “Adrenalin,” with its wordless vocal wails, reflects the disorienting madness that would have to come with this transformation, and the conflicting emotions of humanity being simultaneously invaded and improved. The album’s grand finale “seems like the opening to a grand unknown, rather than a resolution,” as I wrote back then.

Mandorla Awakening presents a similar other-worldliness, though ritualistic beats (including swinging, danceable ones), ecstatic free jams, and chaotic eddies of sound.

But it also draws from soul, gospel, and funk with poet avery r. young singing Mitchell’s lyrics about perseverance. “Staircase Struggle” delivers a straight beat with flute and guitar tracing free spirals behind the jam. “We keep on doin’ the same thing / Over and over, and over again,” young sings, eventually leading into a Mitchell poem about social change.

 
If Mandorla‘s music seems earthbound compared to Xenogenesis, it’s because the story is, too. A global pandemic has left the remains of civilization under totalitarian rule, but a group of survivors has escaped to an isolated island, where they’ve built a happy, functioning society. The central conflict comes with the arrival of two people from the outside world. As Mitchell told the Chicago Reader, “I’m curious about discovering what happens if we unify duality by smashing together two worlds: a dystopic world and utopic world. Can human consciousness be transformed by embracing fears and establishing balance?”

The story culminates with the cooldown jam of “Mandorla Island” and the clackety, celebratory funk of “Timewrap.” The latter is a bit like an encore piece — the album was recorded live in 2015 — and it’s a highlight. But rather than “give away” the musical ending, I’ll finish with “Dance of Many Hands,” an earlier track that’s a small story in itself. It opens with an airy, optimistic jam followed by a brief tribal drum solo by Jovia Armstrong and elegiac cello by Tomeka Reid.

June 25, 2017 at 9:32 am Leave a comment

Shelton in Copenhagen

Aram Shelton & Håkon BerreBygning G (self-released, 2017)

bygning-gIt didn’t take long for Aram Shelton to get to work, musically, after moving to Copenhagen last fall. Bygning G came out in February, teaming up the former Bay Area saxophonist with Danish drummer Håkon Berre.

Berre is part of the Scandanavian creative music scene (here’s a sample), so he pairs nicely with Shelton on this album of mid-length improvisations, each of which explors a few different moods.

“Shelton Berre 1” opens in a relaxed vibe, building into a steady flow of jazzy ideas from Shelton, backed by a torrent from Berre. His drums aren’t too “up front” in the mix, which means he’s able to provide a current of energy without overwhelming the sound.

The track later gets into scratching and scraping — a more sparse sound but keeping the same propulsive pace.

“2” is a careful and quiet exploration that eventually blossoms, with Shelton delivering choppy statements against Berre’s clatter.

The opening of “3” includes some of my favorite playing on the album — active but casual, with Berre quickly going to the snare drum to add some heat.

 
The rest of “3” turns quiet and experimental, ending with air-through-the-horn sounds and a percussive rustle like gentle rainfall.

“4” opens tumultuously, with Berre showing a subtle touch even amid a raging din. After a long, thoughtful middle, the track ends with Shelton in a spiritual stream-of-consciousness state with Berre’s drums sounding ritualistic yet frantic.

In addition to being a good listen on its own, Bygning G has spurred me to explore Berre’s Barefoot Records label. In addition to improv, there’s some interesting jazz on there. Berre’s resume also includes the interesting punk/surf/prog band HÄRJA (aggressive music with a sense of humor and odd time signatures — you can have a listen on Soundcloud).

More of Shelton’s work is available on his Singlespeed Music label, and you can find Bygning G itself on Bandcamp.

June 10, 2017 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

Sharp, Halvorson, Ribot, Cline

Elliott Sharp with Mary Halvorson & Marc Ribot — Err Guitar (Intakt, 2017)

Nels Cline, Elliott SharpOpen the Door (Public Eyesore, 2012)

errguitarIt’s like a jungle of steel strings hanging like vines, and in certain segments, you can hear trademark moments Elliott Sharp‘s knotty, clustered guitar style; Mary Halvorson‘s spidery angles and abrupt, dark bursts; and Marc Ribot‘s soaring, edgy guitar heroism.

Put them together in a largely improvised set populated mostly with acoustic guitars, and you get that jungle effect. The overall mood is dark and twisted, but the titles of the songs (and of the album itself) tell you this is a jovial meeting. Sharp and Ribot have collaborated for decades, dating back to the ’80s downtown scene, and while Halvorson is younger, she’s been established as their peer in out-jazz circles.

Sadly, their schedules didn’t allow for a full-on trio recording. As Sharp explains in the liner notes, Err Guitar consists mostly of duets.

Two tracks were planned as overdubbed trios. “Blindspot” features all three playing in a spacious, sparkling mode; it’s a Sharp-Ribot duo with conscious space left for Halvorson. The other full-trio track is “Kernel Panic,” which carries a narrative flow built around Sharp’s graphical score. The track gathers like dark clouds, creating hailstorms at times when two or three of the players decide to cut loose.

 
These are dark landscapes. “Sinistre” casts an evil shadow, with dark-skies electric defining the mood for two scrabbling acoustic guitars. “Oronym” opens with a tangle of acoustic strings speaking in tongues and builds into an electric screech almost on the verge of a drone.

Two tracks not to miss: “Wobbly” is an acoustic duo with Ribot, with playful steel sparks flying everywhere. “Shredding Light,” with Halvorson, culminates in heavenly beams that do make it seem as if they’re playing the light itself.

cline-sharpSpeaking of guitar collaborations …

Open the Door is a lost album from 1999, when Sharp brought a young Nels Cline into Studio zOaR on West 30th Street for a day of acoustic improvising. The two guitarists laid down tracks direct-to-tape, only to have two record labels go belly-up before releasing the music. Public Eyesore‘s Bryan Day is the one who finally gave the music a proper release. It includes a 2007 live track, recorded by Cline and Sharp at The Stone, possibly in support of another duo album, Duo Milano (Long Song, 2006).

The album strikes me as having more concentration on melody (albeit in sour, off-kilter tones) than Err Guitar. “Isotropes” includes a slide and some downright pretty arpeggio work to create a songlike atmosphere. “Five Tastes of Sour” is like a careful study in harmonies, with each guitarist spending time exploring chords and leaving them to linger; it’s a nine-minute improvisation in no particular hurry.

The 2007 track, “Pietraviva,” is like blues clipped up and played on fast-forward, with notes and ideas rebounding all over the room. It packs a punch, and it ends with both guitars in tight percussive mode, the kind of clackety sound that’s been a Sharp trademark. These two had a lot of fun, both in 1999 and in 2007.

 

June 5, 2017 at 11:46 pm Leave a comment

Back Pages #3: 66 Shades, 27 Years Later

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the first and second installments.)

Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard66 Shades of Lipstick (E.G., 1990)

tippett-66The first fully improvised album I ever bought was probably 66 Shades of Lipstick. Pianist Keith Tippett had already had a distinguished career by then, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard was an up-and-comer, but to me in 1990, they were just blokes who happened to have an album on E.G. Records, the short-lived but vital label that produced Bill Bruford’s first Earthworks albums and the King Crimson Discipline trilogy that I so treasure.

Moreover, 66 Shades got picked by Jazziz magazine as the top album of the year. This was a bit unusual, as Jazziz had been a champion of the then-hot smooth jazz trend. Something this far off the beaten path seemed worth exploring.

For me, it was just a lark. My sincere interest in improvised music wouldn’t develop until later in the decade.

So how does this same album hold up, with all that experience now packing my ears?

I have to admit that back in 1990, I didn’t listen to 66 Shades very carefully. I liked the sound and I appreciated the experiment of it all, but my ears, trained by prog rock, were still seeking patterns and time signatures. I was watching a 3-D movie and trying to detect scents.

So, I gravitated toward the tuneful and catchy. “Shade 1” was the right start, with a wood block to putting percussive tickle on Tippett’s opening piano riff. That, and Andy Sheppard’s overly sweet soprano saxophone, were elements I could relate to.

 
What stuck with me most was this description of the improvising process, from Tippett’s brief liner notes: “The music had to be carved like sculpture from the air.” I love that metaphor, and I’ve stolen it on occasion. But comparing the results to the other improvised music I now own, whether jazz-oriented or more abstract, 66 Shades is below average.

“Shade 13” is a bare snippet but doesn’t have to be. I guess it’s believable that the improv ended organically there, but it also smacks of, “We’d better includes some short ones to show how spontaneous this was.” Likewise for “Shade 6,” which is a brief soulful melody, the kind that’s pretty but not at all special. Assuming they recorded 66 takes (which is where I’m assuming the title comes from), there must have been something more deserving of album space.

On the other hand, “Shade 9” is a hardy improvisation with prepared piano and some bass-note flourishes by Tippett, with Sheppard pursuing a robust stream-of-consciousness trail.

 
“Shade 3” is the first track on the album that made “sense” to me, in that Tippett presents a linear idea — ocean waves of tumbling notes, sticking to one musical mode — over which Sheppard adds grand flourishes. But with today’s ears, I’m more drawn to the fluttering and scribbling of “Shade 2,” a track I completely didn’t remember.

 
“Shade 5” is like a serious attempt at a symphonic film noir piece; it’s not bad but not something I’d return to frequently. “Shade 14” is a more appealing idea of taking a simple concept — a rapid-fire swirling, in this case — and just building from it. After a dervish-like start, it settles on a more moderate pace but keeps up that looping, swirling feel.

 
The E.G. label didn’t last long, so everything I own from its catalog is a keeper. 66 Shades might not top my list of favorites, but I’m proud of myself for giving it a shot, so long ago.

May 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

Zeena Parkins Gets Back to Basics

Zeena ParkinsThree Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics (Good Child, 2017)

zeenaparkins-threeharpsI tend to encounter Zeena Parkins primarily as a composer and electronics performer, including electronically enhanced harp. But of course, her base instrument is the harp itself, so it’s a change of pace to hear so much of the unadorned acoustic harp on Three Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics.

Harps are good for spinning a sense of wonder and calm, and you get plenty of that on Three Harps. But you also get lots of creative, non-traditional playing, even before the electronic enhancements and tuning forks come in. The simple plinking of harps, played aggressively by Kristen Theriault, Megan Conley, and principal harpist Nuiko Wadden, plus Parkins herself on occasion, yields some engaging results with an overarching tunefulness built by minimalist, abstract strings of melody.

“Muted” starts with a lively, tickling pulse. What keeps it rather quiet is the nature of the harps themselves, but the track is still full of moments such as a sudden run of notes from one harp, or small strumming motions — musically percussive slaps — coloring one short segment.

On “Determined,” Parkins (or possibly Ikue Mori) adds splashes of electronics consisting of sampled harps compacted into small splashes of gibberish. “Mouse” then introduces a truly new array of sounds: Vibrato, percussive scraping, and a gray electronic roar join a backdrop of scurrying, minimalist flickers on the untreated harps.

The contemplative “Tuning Forks” is, of course, where the tuning forks come in, played by Mori. They’re played straight, creating shimmering tones that are so abstract as to feel almost tuneless at times. The overtones linger, creating a contemplative backdrop for Parkins’ swampy array of electronics.

Based on music written for a 2008 dance projectThree Harps is a nice showcase for technique and compositional approach, and it works as a single, coherent piece — it has that narrative thread to it.

May 27, 2017 at 11:20 am Leave a comment

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