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Open City - The Birth of Cruel

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Artist: Open City

Album: The Birth of Cruel

Label: Thin Wrist

Review date: Jun. 15, 2004

The Los Angeles trio Open City serve up three extended songs on The Birth of Cruel, or perhaps I should say expanses of sound. There are no "song" structures to be found on Open City’s latest LP, which sees the group following in the wake of The Dead C and British improv legends AMM.

But Open City certainly have their own group dynamic, and each player brings their own vocabulary to the party. Andrew Maxwell's drumming and percussion (he also plays with The Curtains) scatters thuds, cymbal washes, and metallic clanks throughout space while Peter Kolovos and Doug Russell spew bits of molten fuzz and distorted rumblings from their guitars. While there are moments of elegant drone, more often the trio chases a free sound ethos with a distinct attack. These pieces could not be repeated, and it appears none of the audio events were pre-planned.

The danger of this approach is well-documented, so I'll cut to the chase and say that Open City reap the rewards and suffer the consequences. The well-worn word "soundscape" tells the story, as sounds come and go and the 45 minutes pass in a cloud of mysteriously interconnected happenings. Letting go and allowing the pieces to flow past, the sounds rise and fall together, and there's always something going on that will grab your attention. It's clear that these three are listening to each other, even when the going gets heavy (early in "Fetch and Squabble," there's a particularly intense burst of activity), although I found that the calmer passages perhaps emphasize their strengths.

At the same time, it's sometimes easy to get frustrated with the lack of narrative in these pieces. It doesn't feel as though there's perceptible movement, nor are there patterns or sounds that provide a connection between distinct passages. Without a backbone of some sort, these tracks are no more than the sum of their parts, collections of sounds that, while undeniably intriguing, don't add up to a greater whole.

Whether this is a bad thing or not really depends. It's interesting, because I found that my listening approach made quite a difference. Active listening didn't work for me, because I wanted to hear connections being made throughout each piece; not necessarily a theme – that's too strong a word – but a thread. If I disengaged more and let the sound be sound, I found that I could easily appreciate it as just that, a sequence of sounds that remained interesting and active.

Which is, of course, just a more detailed way of saying that your mileage may vary. But now you know what it's like on the way.

By Mason Jones

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