Fire! and Oren Ambarchi — In The Mouth – a Hand (2012, Rune Grammofon)
Don’t yell it in a movie theatre, but Fire! (Mats Gustafsson, saxophones/Fender Rhodes and live electronics; Johan Berthling, bass/guitar/ organ; Andreas Werliin drums and percussion) are a heady and paroxysmal ensemble, whose 2012 release featuring Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – a Hand, is archetype of what contemporary psychedelia should be. At times reminiscent of Mats Gustafsson’s work with Italian experimental rockers Zu, this quartet effectively bridges the gaps between contemporary improvised music(s), the free jazz of the 1960s and 1970s, and the pulsing hypno-psychedlia of the MC5 in their most incendiary moments or early counterculture kosmische. Throughout the record, moody bass grooves, taken straight out of UFO’s Guru playbook combine with hypnotic, in-the-pocket drumming, flowing strokes of guitar feedback, and Rhodes keyboard fragments to create works that are immersive, immense, and generally relentless. The psych-rock of yesteryear always remained firmly moored within the idiom of rock music, but this quartet have no inclination to do so. They are content to use the tools and motifs of 1960s psychedelia, but use them instead to traverse a landscape more consistent with Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders’ frenetic playing on Om than with the insipid neo-psych drivel in the contemporary rock zeitgeist.
Oren Ambarchi — Hubris (2016, Editions Mego)
I was on the train to Glasgow to see the solo wonder from down under, Oren Ambarchi, when I received an e-mail: Air France had lost his gear and his show was cancelled. Perhaps the brilliance of his latest release makes up for it. Oren Ambarchi’s newest LP from Editions Mego is worlds away from the serene Grapes from the Estate or his work on Touch Music. Continuing along the sonic lines of 2014’s Quixotism, Hubris sees Ambarchi bring a host of notable collaborators into the fold (Arto Lindsay, Jim O’Rourke, et al.). “Hubris, Pt. 1” is Autobahn for a new generation. In our age of cultural over-saturation and bastardization, Ambarchi’s work will not have the same degree of impact; a shame, because the opener is no kosmiche pastiche — it’s all its own and demonstrates a rich palette of music making by the Australian and his chosen ensemble. It magisterially combines many of the traits of Kraftwerk’s 1 and 2 with the aforementioned Autobahn and is soothingly repetitive and highly soporific in its 22 minutes of glory. “Hubris, Pt. 2” is the pop tune of the album. Light-hearted, delayed guitar mixes with chopped up fragments of a conversation, just barely audible. Musically, one could easily envision this track as an OK Computer outtake. Fortunately, Ambarchi realizes there’s nothing doing in extending this tune unnecessarily and ends it in under two minutes. The track’s brevity keeps it interesting and places it into stark relief against the album’s two longer movements. If “Pt. 1” is a merger of early/later Kraftwerk, “Hubris, Pt. 3” is the sound of those records being physically melted together. The song’s initial, innocuous musings morph into an electrified cyclone of neo-psychedelia. Ambarchi shows his competence as an arranger on top of an ensemble whose chemistry is nothing short of remarkable. While his back catalogue is superb, the direction Oren Ambarchi has set off in makes for some equally stellar listening.
No Neck Blues Band — Qvaris (2005, 5 Rue Christine)
Far and away the most approachable release by the New York 7-piece, No Neck Blues Band’s 2005 release Qvaris is a multilayered, dense, and challenging set of jams, which is still tame enough to capture the hearts and minds of yr standard-issue rock aficionados. I am certain beyond a doubt that somewhere, one of those
highbrow music journos or parent’s house posers has happily ascribed No Neck as the bonafide front runners of postmodernist post-rock — which I am decidedly post-the bullshit. Not your typical snail’s pace digital delay-laden indie ballad snooze fest, NNCK instead knock out some of the most solid groove-oriented improvised rock music since the stellar kosmische groups of postwar Germany. Vibes a là early Holger Czukay and This Heat, but still singular and interesting in its own right. The swaggering “Live your Myth in Grease” recalls early Blonde Redhead before evolving into an ethereal alien soundscape of heavily modulated, dripping guitars or keys or theremins— who fucking knows. One of the most endearing and exciting elements of NNCK, is their seamless ability to erase the distinctions between instruments and instead perform as a collective unit. Check your ego at the door. “The Caterpillar Heart” sounds a like a scene from a Terry Gilliam film, while “Boreal Gluts” and “Lugnagall” take pages from Faust’s playbook, glazed with a thin a patina of New York City filth, natürlich. Improvised music at times has a degree of seriousness to it, and for some, that’s surely part of its allure. That said, Qvaris has a clear sense of humor and the band well and truly sound like they’re having fun. As witty as a palindrome, this. I like to think that the band burst in laughter when they put down their instruments. A rock record at the end of the day, just not a big, dumb rock record.
Holger Czukay – On the Way to the Peak of Normal (1981, Electrola; 2013 reissue, Grönland)
Listen [partial playlist of the album on youtube]
More restrained and less bizarre than Czukay’s 1979 Movies, 1981’s On the Way to the Peak of Normal feels like the lost alternate soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. If Movies was a carnivalesque appraisal of rock music, On the Way is an acid trip, wondering through the vacant lot where the big top has just up sticks. Side A kicks off with the brooding title track, which grooves and moves like a a tune culled from the Suzuki-era Can catalogue, featuring an amalgam of distant horns and whistling oscillations. “Witches Multiplication Table,” a tune penned by producer extraordinaire Conny Plank, no less, keeps the creeps going. Had Count Dracula ever been chronicled in a film by Sergio Leone, I’d expect to hear the brief and enigmatic “Two Bass Shuffle,” as the accompanying score. Public Image Ltd.’s low-end agitator Jah Wobble assumes bass duties with Czukay on drums, not your Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor bullshit by a long shot. Side A is thematically consistent and it’s rather easy to lose yourself in Czukay’s grooves and off-kilter sonic motifs. The flip side, is arguably one of the greatest tunes of all time, the sultry “Ode to Perfume.” An 18 psych-kosmiche slow-burning come down. This is Sgt. Pepper’s, if the Beatles had come from Mars. Imbued with a near operatic sense of grandeur, yet ultimately retaining a sense of intrigue and risk, the track manages to be that rare feat, a work which is both sexy and artistically engrossing at once. Dark and spooky vibes permeate this release, but not in an unsettling way: it’s the end of the night, your head is swimming, and you want to fall asleep, but can’t. This record is playing square in the middle of that head space.