13 April

 

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Lao Dan — Functioning Anomie (2018, WV Sorcerer Productions)

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For many a listener hailing from Western Europe or North America, China is not the first nation to spring to mind as a hotbed of improvised and experimental music(s) (this fact is astutely gibed in the title of New Zealand label End of the Alphabet’s superlative compilation containing Chinese artists, There is No Music from China). Enter Lao Dan, alto saxophonist from Nanjing.

Lao’s forthcoming solo debut cassette on Chinese/French label WV Sorcerer Productions, Functioning Anomie, is a work that showcases the many sides of a skilled altoist. Lao’s timbre, though at times unrepentantly caustic – recalling the coarseness of Mats Gustafsson or Peter Brötzmann – also manages to reflect inward: a musical ellipsis that resignedly undulates into an evanescent question mark, that starts to disappear as soon as it is penned. Whilst capable of all the freewheeling charivari of both the aforementioned Gustafsson and Brötzmann, Lao possess a flowing, seductive side that eludes the former players, even in their most restrained moments.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Lao’s debut is that the listener can hear the artist’s curiosity and fascination with the sound of his instrument in space. On both sides of the tape, one audibly discerns Lao’s acute understanding of the environment’s effect on the produced work. The result is an interesting exploration of timbre, tone, and dynamics, but far from the sterile environment of the studio (and so often the theatre or club), these recordings are unmistakably imbued by the space’s presence. Recorded in Hangzhou’s Qinglongdong Tunnel, the extraneous sounds and cavernous reverberation do not merely serve as a layer of “field-recordings” or texture in the mix, but rather assume the role of actant-cum-phantom instrument.

“Riou,” the opening track on side-B, is perhaps most illustrative of Lao’s range and prowess. The first third of the tune spectrally glide from dusty blues into melancholy ballad, before Lao begins to hum into his mouthpiece, signaling a brisk departure. For the remaining ten minutes, Lao blasts rollicking sonic sidewinders that at numerous points threaten to blast holes in the listener’s headphones from the sheer intensity (a feeling underscored the artist’s subdued screams in the closing minute). The closer, “Doppelganger & Immateriality” features prominent use of flute and makes for heady, meditative closer on a fantastic solo debut.

Fans of darker, more abrasive strains of free jazz would be wise to check out this release, out April 30, 2018.

13 March

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Wolf Eyes — Strange Days II (Lower Floor Music, 2017)

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Having loved Wolf Eyes’ March 2017 release Undertow, you’d think the marginal crew would have been quick to get Strange Days II up in running immediately following its August release. This post, however, is clearly a testament to the contrary. Perhaps the delay has afforded the listener some much needed critical distance — especially since we are talking about those demented doctors of density from Detroit, Wolf Eyes. Days picks up the mantle where Undertow left off. Whilst the band has self-stylized themselves as a “trip metal outfit,” the recent direction they have pursued far exceeds anything offered by the appellation metal. Of course, the soundscapes that the group craft are metallic, but Bathory it ain’t. Wolf Eyes have definitely crossed the Rubicon: they’ve effectively moved into new territory, begun to incorporate new motifs in their playing, but still manage to sound like Wolf Eyes. Surely this is the mark that one would hope all bands and players strive for, yet the base/superstructure logic of late capitalism sees art and artists ultimately defer to the spectacular and omnipresent dominance of the commodity. Debord-cum-Marxian bullshit aside — and not to imply that Wolf Eyes operate beyond the aforementioned logic—the two tracks on this release are hypnotic and explorative, which makes Strange Days II great for successive listens. Nate Young and John Olson come across like modern day incense-burning Martin Rev and Alan Vega on an Einstürzende Neubauten kick. Flutes, guitars, and oscillators all contribute to the dark and somnolent basement musings of the Detroit. Despite the brevity, Strange Days II is another strong release from Wolf Eyes.

6 February

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Tashi Dorji and Tyler Damon — Leave No Trace: Live In St. Louis (2018, Family Vineyard)

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Tyler Damon’s glassy opening cadence on top of Tashi Dorji’s hazy guitar swells form an eerie sonic vignette which gingerly filters into the listener’s ears. One cannot help but recall the lowering gate arm and ringing bell at a level crossing. An apt notion indeed, as the train that approaches is the tandem sounds of Dorji and Damon who set out to incinerate the air as they blast forth from the stereo, full-speed ahead on their second long playing release on Indianapolis’ Family Vineyard. Leave No Trace is two tracks -that’s all the duo need. This release is devoid of any bullshit. “Calm The Shadows” is the sound of meditating heavy machinery. If one listens beyond the immediate bombast, there remains an unmistakable serenity. The flip side of the slab is the titular “Leave No Trace.” At times sparse and reminiscent of the blurred swagger of the A side’s opening bars, yet unafraid to meander into dangerous territory. The duo possess the ability to bewitch and entrance the listener, yet do not shy away from exploring the shadowy interstices which fleetingly appear in their sonic traversals. Few contemporary outfits can take up the platitudinous tools which rock’n’roll has worn down to the point of absolute banality and so masterfully repurpose them to craft something so wholly original, enthralling, and incendiary. Remaining in the discursive universe of rock music(s), one must recall Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins’ remark that the first time he saw the Clash in the late 1970s. Rollins recalled the group played with such unrelenting ferocity, that it seemed impossible that there would be any corporal or sonic remnants left of the band by the end of the set. Listening to Damon and Dorji, one is able to appreciate these sentiments in a contemporary context. The title isn’t merely a descriptor, rather it’s a statement of intent. As is the case with any collaboration between Dorji and Damon Leave No Trace is not to be missed.   

 

5 February

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Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi with Masahiko Satoh —  Proton Pump (2018, Family Vineyard)

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2018 is off to a cracking start, no thanks to the Family Vineyard label, who are quickly becoming a mainstay at Marginal HQ with their steady supply of superlative sounds. This latest release by Japanese stalwart, alto saxophonist Akira Sakata, sets 2018 smoothly in motion. Falling somewhere between Coltrane’s Village Vanguard releases and his final work with Rashied Ali, Sakata along with Chikamorachi (aka Chris Corsano on drums and Darin Gray on bass) and Masahiko Satoh on piano, take up the mantle as standard bearers of contemporary free musics. The title track, “Proton Pump” manages to traverse varying sonic milieus of intensity: at times the ensemble sound-off seemingly ready to burst clean off the stage, fragmenting in the process into interminable specks of aural detritus. At other times, canyons of breathing space remain (listen to the massive, sustained piano bit at the 8:05 mark from Satoh) for Sakata to amble over. “Bullet Apoptosis” recalls Dolphy’s film noir suite-cum-masterpiece Out to Lunch with all the intensity of Last Exit (minus the later’s cloying 1980s production). Part spiritual reckoning, part Corsano masterclass, and part exorcism, “Chemiosmotic Coupling of Acorn” might be the most solid cut on an LP of most solid cuts. Satoh’s playful piano drives the piece, while Sakata employs howls, yells, throat singing, and chanting. Corsano rips through every piece kit available belling, bowing, slashing, rolling along the way. Gray’s serpentine peppering on the low end stretches the tune in a way that threatens to bring the universal percolator to a boil and reorder the cosmos—Charlie Haden’d be proud. If Proton Pump is at all indicative of the shape of musics to come in 2018, this year is going to be an absolute cracker. 

3 January

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Chicago/London Underground —  A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors (2017, Cuneiform)

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In the Chicago/London Underground’s A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors, the group’s hazy, playfully meandering performance recalls the convivial, unfettered spirit of 1960s free jazz. Whilst ‘breezy’ may not be the first word one has in mind when listening to free musics, the group swagger through the titular track and justify the performance’s title — they sound entirely capable of seamlessly walking through mirrors, perhaps unsurprising when one sees the strength of the players (Chad Taylor, drums; John Edwards, double bass; Rob Mazurek, cornet; Alexander Hawkins, piano). One hears definite reverberations of early Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry work, Archie Shepp’s late 1960’s BYG Actuel records, and Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador. The ensemble’s use of electronic treatments and/or guitar stompboxes — a technique that is thankfully under utilized in most improvisational circles — is tastefully and effectively employed here by Mazurek. Such effected passages provide a subtle nod to trip hop and at times recall British trumpet/drum duo Spaceheads. ‘Something Must Happen’ exposes the listener to the group’s sonic and textural range: at moments it’s positively Burrell-esque (perhaps not as tempestuous as Echo, but one can confidently utter the LP in the same sentence); the end of the track however showcases both electronic psychedelia and mbira(!). The recording’s fidelity creates no artifice: the album is well recorded, but not glossy. Audience reactions are not redacted. Mixed with the ensemble’s cohesion the listener could easily transport themselves into the low-ceilinged, cramped quarters of Cate Oto on a full night. Arguably one of the most exciting contemporary Free Jazz recordings we’ve experienced in awhile at Marginal HQ, A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors, is indeed a night well spent.

 

1 December

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Andy Moor and Yannis Kyriakides – Rebetika (2010, Unsounds)

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Whilst homage can often feel pastiche, derivative, or just lazy, Andy Moor and Yannis Kyriakides’ (re-)interpretation of classic Greek rebetika guitar works is instead rather fascinating and wholly original. Featuring Moor on guitar and Kyriakides on computer, Rebetika captures the duo in live action in Glasgow, Groningen, and Amsterdam between 2006 and 2007. The pair combine to de/re-construction classic Greek rebetika recordings and in the process craft pieces from the source materials that are at times intuitive and ruminative and other moments fragmentary and alien with the results bearing little resemblance to the source materials. The opener, “Minores” (using “Minores Manes” by Stratos Pajiomdsis) begins unassumingly featuring only subtle manipulations of Pajiomdsis’ original work. As the seven minute track unfolds, Kyriakides forges labrynthine paths that entrance the listener without overpowering the innate solemnity of the original tune. Moor sprinkles the piece with some tasty and odd interjections: full and half-note plucks along with nauseating harmonic barbs, both of which add a surprisingly percussive sense of unease and disquiet. By the time the listener has arrived at track four, the album’s nine-minute centerpiece, “All is Well,” one has been fully pulled  down the rabbit hole. Dimitirs Kontogiannis’ “Eimai Finos Magkas” provides fodder for Kyriakides glitch-laden affair which is an unholy amalgam of early-Cluster and Greek broadcasts on a shortwave radio that is ready to give up the ghost. Moor continues to possess an astounding awareness, realizing all the while that his guitar must simply be a passenger and conduit and not take center stage (no pun intended), as the guitar so often does. Moor and Kyriakides’ Unsounds label has no shortage of excellent releases, but this one certainly ranks among the best in their catalogue.

9 November

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Chris Watson —  El Tren Fantasma (2011, Touch Music)

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Having visited field recording mastermind Chris Watson’s superlative Weather Report in July, today felt like an excellent day to bring the English recordist back into rotation. While his ability to identify, capture, and edit sounds into new artistic works is largely unparalleled, one point that goes largely overlooked is Watson’s abilities as a storyteller. Using sounds (and occasionally speech) in place of written words, Watson manages to craft a deeply immersive and stimulating narrative that captures the listener’s imagination. 2011’s El Tren Fantasma is haunting mix of archival recordings and sounds captured while Watson traversed Mexico on the now defunct Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México as a sound-recordist for the BBC. The listener becomes a passenger on a thrilling ride across a country of diverse landscapes. Boarding announcements feel as frantic and coarse as if one were on the platform; the anticipation of the journey upon hearing diesel engines come to life is equally tangible and immediate. Insects, birds, wind, and the twitch and spark of steel on steel all contribute to the journey and dually reinforce Watson’s creative prowess and the affectivity of sound. While few tracks match the musicality (in the most reductive sense of the word) of “El Divisadero” with its Cascading strings coupled with the rhythmic thud and clack of a train wheels soaring over lengths of track, the abundantly rich sounds captured by Watson take the listener on a thrilling voyage. As the N de M has since been dismantled and/or privatized, the recordings are something of a sonico-historical document which evokes questions related to memory, space, development and how these factors impact acoustic phenomena. As is the case with most of Watson’s work, a brilliant release.