Rabbia/Petrella/Aarset: Lost River (ECM 2609)

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Lost River

Michele Rabbia drums, electronics
Gianluca Petrella trombone, sounds
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Recorded January 2018, ArteSuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 31, 2019

the cold water, the black rushing gleam, the
moving down-rush, wash, gush out over
bed-rock, toiling the boulders in flood,
purling in deeps, broad flashing in falls…
–Robert Duncan, “Styx”

The trio assembled on Lost River was suggested by ECM producer Manfred Eicher, who recognized in their combination something extraordinary. Largely improvised, the music takes shape as much in retrospection as in the spontaneity of given moments. In the intimate tradition of such artists as Jon Hassell (especially in the final track, “Wadi”) and Nils Petter Molvær, yet with a free-flowing energy uniquely their own, these ten tracks circle like birds of prey with in-built thermals who need no other nourishment than the beauty of being heard. In the nexus between Michele Rabbia (drums, electronics), Gianluca Petrella (trombone, sounds), and Eivind Aarset (guitar, electronics), a world unto itself unfolds.

Every amorphous facet of said world is predicated on water in a particular state of being, if not also the state of being imparted to physical bodies in relation to water. Such titles as “Flood” and “What Floats Beneath” turn weeping into a physical substance from which nourishment may be gathered while sailing on a flow of tears. The latter assemblage recalls the biological ambience of Aarset’s Dream Logic, its movements fluid yet latticed by fragmentary impressions whose new coherence is born. Other rivers take form throughout. Where in “Styx” the groaning trombone and voices from afar sound like something out of a science fiction film, “Fluvius” filters pacificism through a twilit arpeggio and brews it into a tea of melodic potency. The title track is the most metaphysical of them all: a float between realms, finding purchase at the molecular level.

“Night Sea Journey” plunges deepest, wherein shifting tectonic plates release repeating signals and itinerant breathing. Field recordings of melting ice and other ballets of renewal animate “What The Water Brings,” while the inchoate “Flotsam” answers those questions of thaw with new life. All of this finds origin, however, in the misty “Nimbus,” which opens with an almighty inhalation. Details emerge from its oceanic possibilities, each grasping a current of wind that might take it to land. Instead, they cohere—suddenly, cinematically—into a vessel in their own right, cutting through waves of electronic processing. A bass line tears up coral and memory, gripping the magma of a long-forgotten volcano to show us its glow before it cools. And so, along for the ride, we leave behind a trail of islands, each smaller than the last, until only a pebble remains: a final token of its own demise.

Below is a video from 2010 documenting an early incarnation of this project at Teatro Astra in Torino, featuring the same trio with Gianluca Lo Presti and longtime ECM photographer Roberto Masotti processing live images in tune with the music being played. Although of a more eruptive quality than what’s documented here, it shines with the excitement of discovery.

Method of Defiance: Phantom Soundclash Cut-up Method – One

Phantom Soundclash 1

Harmony of the spheres is dead. Say hello to harmony of the tesseracts. A group of embodied souls, each the temporary manifestation of an endless truth, has given rise to this multidimensional mandala. Systemic remixologist Dr. Israel, dancehall ambassador Garrison Hawk, P-Funk pioneer Bernie Worrell, Gambian myth-keeper Foday Musa Suso, percussionist Adam Rudolph, trumpeter Graham Haynes, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, and drummer Guy Licata occupy its outer spectrum—a veritable band of bodhisattvas—while Bill Laswell mans the controls, his bass an anchor slung from an ancient Vimāna into the present.

The album consists of one 38-minute track called “Nebuchadnezzar,” a name conjuring buried secrets, unburied symbols, and, beneath all, a fluid skin shared by humanity and animality. Such is the vibe with which Worrell’s keyboarding paints a dream so tender and immediate that every tear it sheds produces another weeping eye. We are scraped into reality by a distant mechanical whir, one in which is sung all futures as if they were insects poised on the horizon’s mountainous tongue. Purification is the illusion by which they lash at anyone who would turn away. A charging rhinoceros of sound awaits those who remain, its horn tearing through the underbrush like a shark ready to breach its karmic enclosure and masticate enlightenment at the vector of its own cerebral cortex.

The ensuing beat is its signature. Like a chemical reaction without visible effect, it veils chaos with order. Suso’s kora comes as a voice of earth amid the stormy heavens, a bird of flesh and feather bound to metal, the frequency of which has a way of matching whoever chooses to listen. Haynes’s trumpet, meanwhile, is the trickster overhead, jumping from cloud to cloud in a matrix of its own design. But no matter the singularity grasped during the listening process, each instrument is but one star in a crop dusted with galaxies. For what should emerge from the smoke and thickness of being but a memory of organ and choir folded like an origami version of itself and glued into the pop-up book that birthed it.

Phantom Soundclash foregoes the lofty ideal of the mash-up as a blender switched to puree, favoring instead the chunky textures of a broken machine, the inputs of which yield discernible hybrids. This is music that treats its own skin as a tattooable surface, even as it grinds itself along an inkstone of modulation toward sacrifice.

Alexander Berne & The Abandoned Orchestra: Flickers of Mime / Death of Memes

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Alexander Berne is a world unto himself. Although this double album nominally features him and “The Abandoned Orchestra,” the latter is no more—and no less—than an expansion of self through the art of multi-tracking. Emoting through a variety of wind instruments, piano, percussion, and electronic treatments, he crafts brooding soundscapes for the discerning ambient listener. But don’t let the word “ambient” fool you. This is music that burrows with its own bronze sheen into the darkest corners of the soul and by that light inscribes reams of verses from makeshift biological desks.

Flickers of Mime is in eleven parts and is one of Berne’s most focused atmospheres yet. There is a magical consistency at work in the near-continual drone of Flickers I through IV, bleeding through psychological lattice with the persistence of solitude. Flicker V, however, transgresses a different skin altogether with its persistent, swirling luminescence. And yet, it doesn’t mark a turning point so much as a turning, period—a metamorphosis, if you will, of the self into an alternate signature. Overtly classical inflections speak not of earthly art but of an intergalactic pigment, whereby the unknown becomes the only frame of reference. By Flicker VIII we are caught in the machinery of linearly bound time. The electro-acoustic blend of crunchy break beats and organic breath forge enough heat in their center to turn dark matter into diamond. The flock of piano and reeds that is Flicker X gives glimpse into every occlusion, while the unconsummated matrix of the final Flicker gives rise to sinking.

Death of Memes is in nine parts. Its title comes from poet Michael Bonine’s sonnet sequence “August 12th, 1996.” There is indeed a feeling of raw poetry in the more industrial textures at play. From an introduction I can only describe as “comatose grunge,” it compresses anarchy into a single drop of ink and unfurls its dragon’s tail in a glass of water. This far more contemplative collection of impressions feeds on nutrients of the forgotten, the left-behind, the ruinous. Like the early tape loops of William Basinski, it embraces the aesthetic of decay as the only path toward completion. The sounds here are less locatable, more of a piece with outer spaces than with inner logics. In Meme VI the architecture begins to vibrate so intensely that it bends to the limits of its structural integrity. The droning textures are filled with promise, leaving the piano to resurface in Meme VIII like a floating dream, so that only in the final hour can angels touch their own ears.

This is asylum in sound. Welcome to your hermitage.

For more information on ordering, click here.

Alexander Berne & The Abandoned Orchestra: Composed and Performed by Alexander Berne

Composed and Performed by Alexander Berne

Although the word “enigma” refers to hidden meanings and messages, the music of composer-instrumentalist Alexander Berne discloses itself in starkness, not darkness. Nowhere so clearly as in this triptych of albums released in 2010 on the progressive Innova Recordings. Closest in spirit to the multi-tracked worlds of Stephan Micus, Berne’s universe expands well beyond the binary of flesh and spirit into geometries of neither.

The Soprano Saxophone Choir

The Soprano Saxophone Choir opens this 158-minute path by slowly melting away any obscuring hinges of expectation until the door falls away, leaving the listener between the infinity of two opposing mirrors. The ensuing soundscape unfolds a variety of topographical textures, each suited to its theme like light to color. The initiatory “Shores,” for example, paints miles of coastline with a minimal palette, evoking waters and coastlines with a fisherman’s intuition. It doesn’t so much tell as comport its story, as a dancer would favor gesture over pen. Yet it is not only bodies but environments themselves which move with mammalian self-awareness, moving stealthily through the sun and groundswell of “Gardens” and picking the “Hyacinth” that grows in its soil. What follows is a spectrum of nodes, moving from the isolationist jewel that is “Eschaton,” through the science fiction scope of “Reaches” and the ritual motifs of “Uhm,” and linking to the cellular origins of “Magic,” where modal poetry glows like desert canopy.

The Saduk

The Saduk takes its title from an instrument of Berne’s own invention. Something of a cross between a saxophone and a duduk but of a sphere all its own, it unfolds the very map charted on the first disc and adds names to its rivers, mountains, and geographical regions. The “Aubade” is a morning love song by name, a migration of geese and cranes reflected in sunlit waters that sets a viscerally focused tone, by which the tenderness of Berne’s performance sheds skin to reveal a syncopation free of clots in “Wanderer,” whereby the itinerant body reveals the lessons of its calluses and sunburns as if they were scripture. In contrast to this arid passage, “Clepsydra” (Greek for “water clock”) pours its liquid song from one vessel to another and back again in a droning piece that absorbs brief rhythmic elements to count the seconds. Filling the chasm framed by the eternal golden braid of “Sirens” (wherein one can hear the inner beauties of the saduk in all their glory) is Christo Nicholoudis, who provides vocals on two tracks: “Tridoula” and “Supernal.” His presence subtracts a feeling of architecture and substitutes cavernous breathing in its place. A stirring at the biological level.

The Abandoned Orchestra

The Abandoned Orchestra is Berne’s self-styled refraction, an expression of self that finds union in multiplicity. “Plumescent” is the first of seven steps into this more colorful anatomy. Pulses provide requisite traction, but feel almost accidental in their flips of grace. “Lustening” dips into Muslimgauze territory with its distorted break beat and fading reed lines, while “Kenosis” (another Greek word, this referring to the processes by which one empties the self to receive divine will) diffuses a mind interrupted by its own vocal desires. “Najash” refers to the snake in the Garden of Eden, enchanting with charmer’s croon but disappearing into the self-replicating spiral of “Arise” before being blasted into strands of infinity by the soprano saxophone in “Auriga.” Named for the constellation better known as the Charioteer, the latter does indeed pull its charge from one night to the next, unrelenting in its quest for fire.

Standing out like facial features along the way are three “Chronicles,” each a summary of what came before that treats every lilting line with the care of a mother bird warming her eggs. Averaging at 16.5 minutes each, they constitute a nomadic horizon at various stages of recession, and leave us wondering just how long it will take for our shadows to stretch until we step on our own heads.

For more information on ordering, click here.

David Torn: Prezens (ECM 1877)


David Torn

David Torn guitars, live-sampling and manipulation
Tim Berne alto saxophone
Craig Taborn Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, mellotron, bent circuits
Tom Rainey drums
Matt Chamberlain drums
Recorded March 2005 at Clubhouse Studios, Rhinebeck, New York
Engineer: Hector Castillo
Produced by David Torn

Prezens marks David Torn’s return to ECM after a long hiatus since cloud about mercury. Here the guitarist joins altoist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Tom Rainey for a combustible tangle of music making. The band, goes the backstory, recorded a dozen hours of free improvisation, from which were culled and refashioned an album’s worth of material, surgeried by Torn post factum. Finding one’s way through the end product may be no small task, but reaps its rewards in proportion to the openness of the ears receiving them.

At sound center is Torn himself, who, if not picking his glyphs across six amplified strings, is deepening them at the mixing board. Indeed, his presence (the album’s title under another name?) echoes far beyond the chord that stretches its yawn across “ak” in a swirling electronic haze. If the appearance of drums, organ, and saxophone seems out of place in this opening track, it is because they belong there so needfully. Ambient constructions flit in and out of aural purview, foiling the physicality of the acoustic here and now. Trailing the footfalls of Berne’s ghostly doppelganger, they trip over grungy riffs from Torn, who invites satirically blissful finish. Ganglion to ganglion, each instrumental element touches the third eye of something cerebral yet instantly accessible. Accessible, yes, because of the music’s inability to clothe itself. This isn’t meant to make your head nod, but to implode.

Spoken words hide like poison in “rest & unrest,” an exploration of the illusory nature of reality, a musical testimony led astray by its own shadow. It reveals the album’s variety of diction and leads into the evolved patterning of “structural functions of prezens.” As Torn’s electric keens distantly yet with the bleed-through of a Venn diagram, cells of machine-gun drumming turn this forlorn jam session into an exercise in self-destruction. Berne’s alto weaves its legato path across a landscape that is equal parts Jon Hassell and Steve Tibbetts, as if smuggling genomes across the border between consciousness and unconsciousness. So begins a chain of possible references one might connect. The electrical charge of Elliott Sharp activates the filaments of “bulbs,” while Bill Frisell’s weeds tumble through the ghost town of “them buried standing,” the latter further notable for its angelic resolution.

The album’s latter half mines decidedly urban sites of sonic production. The mélange of beat and grunge that is “sink” pulses with the muffled wisdom of an underworld nightclub. Berne’s hard-hitting altoism here gives the sheen of dislocation that comes with dreams. Yet grooves are rare on Prezens, because this project is less about the hook than about the catch dangling and writhing on its barb. Despite the metallurgy of “ever more other” and “ring for endless travel,” two further rhythmic outliers, warped atmospheres prevail. By those atmospheres the music is always connected, whether in the jangly slide acoustic of “miss place, the mist…” or in the mock shredding of “transmit regardless,” so that by album’s end we find ourselves wrapped in a swan song to impetuous youth by way of looking into the maturity of an artist who with his cohorts has unearthed a timeworn stone to contemplate for decades more.

Prezens is an album of inbound escapism—that is, one which enjoys getting lost in itself. Its codes come to us broken, for they speak only of that which was never whole.

Food: Mercurial Balm (ECM 2269)

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Mercurial Balm

Iain Ballamy saxophones, electronics
Thomas Strønen drums, electronics
Christian Fennesz guitar, electonics
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Prakash Sontakke slide-guitar, vocal
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet
Recorded 2010 and 2011 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Victoria National Jazz Scene, Oslo
Mixed at Rainbow Studio by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Food

Mercurial Balm is not only the second ECM outing for saxophonist Iain Ballamy and percussionist Thomas Strønen, a.k.a. Food, but is also the continuation of an exciting new direction begun in the outfit’s Quiet Inlet. Lest these musicians get roped in by their instruments, they also bring an assortment of technology to the table to expand the possibilities of their immediate means. With trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and electronics stalwart Christian Fennesz at their sides once again, along with new guests Prakash Sontakke on slide-guitar and vocals and Eivind Aarset (recently of Dream Logic) on guitar and electronics, their sound takes a leap of evolution.

As if to drive this analogy home, the malleted gongs of “Nebular” trace the helix of a tense and creaking code, building a genetic slide for the tenor’s slow awakening. Samples of those same gongs slip in and out of earshot, blending ash and ore into the traction of “Celestial Food,” which overlays bright reed lines over a subtly propulsive beat. It is the language of travel personified, the depth of communication demonstrated, the uplift of flight conveyed. Those distant drums brush forward in a digital splash, adding contrast to Fennesz’s temperate climates in “Ascendant.” Solace need not apply, for Ballamy’s is an elemental divination, casting its oracle bones into the ether in hopes they might never land.

“Phase” can therefore be seen as a living segue, wormhole into the deeper biology of “Astral.” From its percussive swamp arises a more naked guitar, its pacing humming with ancient energy. This sets off the tenor and soprano in tradeoffs of augury toward an echoing finish. “Moonpie” unravels fairytale synth textures, over which Molvær breathes his sepia song. Sontakke looses his pliable self in “Chanterelle” and in the title track. He inspires Ballamy to more extroverted heights in the former, and in the latter offsets the ticking of cymbals with spider-webbed guitar. “Magnetosphere” glows with paler fire, an aurora borealis compressed to the size of a match head and lit by the mere act of gazing upon it. Echoes of the opening gongs return and pose us for the “Galactic Roll” that ends the album with Strønen’s own magnetosphere, sparked to life with a gallery of thoughts, each hooked by a god’s pinky and sworn to shine. Glittering and tumbling like a billiard ball dropping into a black hole, it sinks without sound.

In this flowing landscape there are distant footsteps. Plunging and resonant, they cry for sun, forever separated from the giants that produced them. There is in this atmosphere indeed a nourishment of which to be partaken, a diary to be coveted. Its clasp may be gold, its binding weathered, but its text is transparent and fresh.

(To hear samples of Mercurial Balm, click here.)