Nineteen Things That Made Me Love Music In 2002 (Charlie Wilmoth)
This list is a celebration of nineteen things that made me happy to be a music consumer this year, including twelve new albums, four live shows, two reissues and a collection of new MP3s. A lot of critics’ year-end lists seem like finger-in-the-wind searches for the Zeitgeist rather than reflections of each writer’s unique taste. I hope that I’ve avoided that, and I hope that if nothing else, this list and the other Dusted lists are a testament to the amazing number of choices out there. Thanks to Sam and Otis at Dusted for giving me the space to write, and for sending me about half the stuff you see here. In no particular order:
Spring Heel Jack, Amassed (Thirsty Ear): I loved Masses, British electronic duo Spring Heel Jack’s 2001 collaboration with Mat Maneri, Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter and other New York free jazz musicians. But Amassed, on which SHJ created tracks for improvisers from their side of the pond to play over, is even better. The main reason why, to put it rather crudely, is that Han Bennink and John Edwards, for example, are less burdened by the jazz tradition than, say, Campbell or Carter. The improvisers on Amassed adapt better to SHJ’s lurching electronic groans because they often avoid jazz-like phrasing, and because they also reject the bop-derived idea that timbre and texture aren’t elements of music that should be experimented with too much. Plus, where else can you hear Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce screeching along with Evan Parker?
Maneri Ensemble, Going To Church and Joe Maneri/Mat Maneri/Randy Peterson live, 10/02, Middletown, Connecticut: Several of the free jazz musicians who appeared on Masses, including Campbell, Mat Maneri, and Matthew Shipp, also contribute fine performances to Going To Church, but Mat’s father Joe steals the show. Joe Maneri, a saxophonist and clarinetist, has spent much of his career exploring the notes in between the twelve pitches to the octave used in most Western music. His music often sounds a bit like speech, in that both he and the human speaking voice often rely on pitches other than the usual twelve to convey inflection. Going To Church, which finds Joe playing with five other musicians, is massive, lumbering and mournful; in his Middletown performance, his lovely interplay with his son Mat, a violist and violinist, and drummer Randy Peterson felt as natural as breathing.
nmperign live, 11/02, Middletown, Connecticut, and Paul Flaherty/Greg Kelley/Chris Corsano, Sannyasi (Wet Paint): Saxophonist Bhob Rainey studied with Joe Maneri at the New England Conservatory, but nmperign, his duo with trumpeter Greg Kelley, eschews the overt expressiveness of Maneri’s music. Instead, Rainey and Kelley, playing slowly and quietly, employ a huge variety of extended-technique effects that often sound like more like air conditioners or car engines than saxophones or trumpets. Their concert in Middletown showcased their amazing breath control—it’s extremely difficult to play a horn with enough consistency to make it sound like a machine—and outstanding use of silence. Sannyasi, Kelley’s recent album with saxophonist Paul Flaherty and drummer Chris Corsano, follows a completely different path. It’s a fiery free jazz outing that brings to mind the impassioned squealing of Charles Gayle and Noah Howard. But Sannyasi is more than just over-the-top blowing: Flaherty, Kelley and Corsano’s amazing ability to jump among varying textures and moods sets Sannyasi apart.
McPhee/Giardullo/Bisio/Tabbal, Shadow And Light (Drimala); Alan Silva, The Seasons (BYG/Sunspots); and Alan Silva/Kidd Jordan/William Parker, Emancipation Suite #1 (Boxholder). Flaherty, Kelley and Corsano almost certainly learned a few lessons about ecstatic jazz from records involving saxophonist Joe McPhee and bassist Alan Silva. But McPhee’s playing on Shadow And Light, recorded on September 11, 2001, is more mournful than anything else. Shadow And Light, which features both blues-based pensiveness and microtonal wobbling, is simultaneously numb-sounding and delicate.
The two releases involving Silva, on the other hand, find him indulging his passion for huge, dense, chaotic orchestrations. On this reissue of The Seasons, originally recorded in 1970, Silva leads a gigantic lineup of jazz musicians living in Paris through two CDs worth of inspired and explosive free playing. Emancipation Suite #1, a new album, only features three performers, but Silva, playing presets from a charmingly outdated synthesizer, creates the sense that there are many more. While saxophonist Kidd Jordan belts in a manner that recalls Interstellar Space-era John Coltrane, and bassist William Parker plucks and bows furiously in the background, Silva joyfully blasts away at synthetic drums, winds, and strings—often all at the same time.
Acid Mothers Temple live, 3/02, Williamsburg, Virginia. Acid Mothers Temple’s music doesn’t sound like anything like Alan Silva’s, but both Silva’s and AMT’s music often get a lot of mileage from being almost absurdly loud. So whoever booked AMT to play in a tiny club run by the quiet, conservative College of William and Mary was just begging for trouble. AMT and the club employees were at odds about the club’s bizarre alcohol policy even before the show, but the real problems didn’t start until after the Japanese group’s set, which featured insistent, motorik drumming, fuzzed-out guitar solos, lengthy guitar/keyboard drones and a gorgeous a cappella folk song. The set ended with leader Makoto Kawabata hanging his guitar from the rafters above the stage. The club employees, shocked by the band members’ alcohol consumption and onstage behavior (and possibly also by their exotic looks and inability to speak fluent English), called the campus police. The police’s subsequent altercation with the band culminated with one of the officers screaming, “He says he doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but he’ll understand BARS and LOCKS in a jail!”
Circle, Raunio (Squealer): The Finnish psychedelic group Circle should appeal to those who weren’t sated by the ridiculous number of Acid Mothers Temple-related albums released this year. Circle has a firm grip on noise, metal and the never-ending rhythms of krautrock, but the most important feature on Raunio is its vocals—the group’s expressive, wavering babble sounds something like a drunk opera singer imitating Can’s Damo Suzuki. Raunio was recorded live, then manipulated in a studio, which adds to its chaos in that it’s hard to tell which layers of noise were played by the musicians and which were tacked on later. Whatever—Raunio is a powerful record that makes me wish I’d heard of Circle sooner.
Wolf Eyes, Dead Hills (Troubleman): Speaking of bands I should’ve heard sooner, I must admit that I still haven’t heard some of the noise groups, like Black Dice and Lightning Bolt, that a lot of Dusted writers have been talking about recently. If those groups sound anything like Wolf Eyes’ Dead Hills, in which terrifying bursts of distortion and vocal heaves reminiscent of early Swans battle it out with crisp, minimal electronic beats, then I’m going to have a lot of fun catching up. In fact, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do even within the Wolf Eyes catalog—the group has made over fifty releases, most of them hand-reproduced by the tiniest of labels.
1-0, Album 1 (self-released); Bret Hart and Phil Hargreaves, The Greater Part Of What My Neighbors Call Good I Believe In My Soul To Be Bad (Whi Music); and Clarinette, Haze (Ecstatic Yod): 1-0, Bret Hart and Phil Hargreaves and Clarinette are artists who, like Wolf Eyes, are also releasing excellent, noisy records from the fringes of the fringes. 1-0’s Album 1 is one of my favorite rock records of the year, though strictly speaking, it isn’t a rock album at all, but rather a collection of MP3s that’s available here: http://artists.iuma.com/IUMA/Bands/10/. Writer Dominique Leone, 1-0’s mastermind, creates fussy, ambitious prog-pop songs that show a knack for weird structures and unexpected changes. His music is also impeccably arranged, especially given that it was recorded on a four-track. Plus, it’s free, so you have no excuse to not check out the lovely My Bloody Valentine-style freakout in the middle of “Angels” or the carnival-waltz-gone-wrong “L’Ascension II.” I’m betting most of the zillions of Radiohead fans out there would love this stuff.
North Carolina guitarist Bret Hart and English saxophonist Phil Hargreaves, meanwhile, each created what became The Greater Part by sending half-finished tapes across the ocean for the other to improvise over. Hargreaves plays in stuttering phrases that recall vintage Evan Parker, while Hart takes advantage of the album’s murky fidelity, creating noisy textures that are a little like Roy Montgomery or Loren Mazzacane. The Greater Part is a unique free improv album in that Hart and Hargreaves seem willing to use the lo-fi recording as a tool to advance their ends, rather than pretending it isn’t there.
Finally, Clarinette’s Haze is a crazy blast of noise that raises the question: what kind of person would think to make something like this? It’s all, or mostly, made up of conventional instruments: “Ripple and Stir” features Beefheartian guitar scribbles that explode into space like drum hits on a dub record, while “Cloud Fusing” is a minimal guitar drone. But it’s so devoid of obvious intention (at least, as much as any recorded music can be devoid of intention)—there are no sudden movements, no dramatic gestures—that it almost feels like incidental sounds made by a car or a household appliance. And in that respect, Haze is at least as creepy as albums like Pan Sonic’s A, which sound like machines in a much more literal way.
Robert Ashley And Paul de Marinis, In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men And Women (Lovely Music): This recently-reissued 1973 Robert Ashley piece falls into a similar “who would think to do this?” category. The text is a lengthy and extremely strange poem by John Barton Wolgamot. It consists of one sentence repeated over and over, and the only changes from sentence to sentence are that different names are inserted: “In their very truly great manners of Jesus Christ very heroically Geoffrey Chaucer, Rupert Brooke…” Ashley’s fascinating liner notes offer a very reasonable interpretation of the very bizarre text. And the music? It’s wonderful—Ashley and Paul de Marinis’ electronics bubble in the background, and Wolgamot’s words sound beautiful when read by Ashley, who delivers the text in his usual sprechstimme-on-downers style. He sounds like either a creepy old man or the Garrison Keillor of the avant-garde, depending on your perspective.
Frank Denyer, The Fired City (Tzadik): Like Ashley, Frank Denyer finds himself positioned far to the left of the mainstream of modern classical music. These works from the early 1970s to the present are noteworthy not only for their odd lineups—“Resonances of Ancient Sins” is scored for octobass flute/alto flute/piccolo, contrabass saxophone, bass tuba and wooden box, while “Quick, Quick, The Tamberan Is Coming” is written for four bass flutes—but also for their gorgeous lyricism. “The Hanged Fiddler,” for example, is based around a flowing violin line that simultaneously stays focused and sounds like it’s going in a dozen different directions, spitting out fragments of North Indian raga and Japanese traditional music in flurries of dizzying glissandi.
Susie Ibarra, Songbird Suite (Tzadik): Songbird Suite is another fine record on the Tzadik label. Ibarra is still probably best-known as the kick-ass jazz drummer who played with David S. Ware in the mid-1990s, but Songbird Suite is much more a showcase for her abilities as a composer than as a drummer. The disc features plenty of improvisation, but rarely as an end in itself: improvised sections typically generate textures and mingle with through-composed elements. The results are far more restrained and cinematic than the average free jazz album. It’s great to hear improvisation this good used in the service of compositions this well conceived.
Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, and Jim Black live, 10/02, Middletown, Connecticut: Ellery Eskelin’s long-standing trio also mixes composition and improvisation, but their sound is much more upbeat and extroverted than Ibarra’s. It’s also far more powerful live than it sometimes is on disc—Jim Black’s drums tend to sound a bit thin on record, but when he’s allowed to fill a room, his pounding, anything-but-the-kitchen-sink style comes into focus. The band’s sound is rooted in free jazz, but Eskelin and company also mix in bits of rock, funk, and fusion—there are plenty of rock-like chord progressions, and Andrea Parkins often uses a bass-heavy, burbling, heavily distorted keyboard sound that will be familiar to fans of early-‘70s Miles Davis. Eskelin, Parkins and Black make some of the most accessible and fun out-jazz I’ve ever heard, and they do so without trivializing any of the genres they’re borrowing from.
Dälek, From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots, Ipecac: Speaking of groups that borrow from a lot of genres… well, forget it, I don’t have a segue. I’m tired. Dälek is a trio that makes dark, texture-based hip-hop that’s not far from Cannibal Ox or El-P, except that Dälek has an even more pronounced love for visceral noise and a less literal, more poetic lyrical approach. (El-P’s Fantastic Damage almost made this list too, but he got points off for barking slogans like “Right here holding my nuts!” over and over, something Dälek would never do.) Dälek reverses the usual hip-hop hierarchy, which makes the MC the center of attention regardless of how imaginative the production is. On From Filthy Tongue, Oktopus and Still’s noise is front and center, giving every tabla flurry and blast of distortion the attention it deserves.
By Charlie Wilmoth