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16-17 - 16-17 + Hardkore & Buffbunker / When All Else Fails...

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Artist: 16-17

Album: 16-17 + Hardkore & Buffbunker / When All Else Fails...

Label: Savage Land

Review date: Apr. 21, 2006

Ah, youth. What a pisser it is; that precocious time when anything can happen, when it seems so easy to mash together passions of all sorts in a linear fashion. The young are often proven wrong, and the better of us shut up and forget about it, but what if, after years of ridicule, the intellectual design of youth was vindicated?

I bring this up now, reminiscing on my college days as Jazz Music Director at WRCT. My awakening past the spheres of Coltrane and Dolphy happened to overlap with my obsessions over Gravity spazzcore and “chicken bok bok” screamo, and I vainly tried to relate the FMP roster to hardcore and punk. It wasn’t like I was grasping at some ridiculously inarticulate straw, like trying to compare Hair Police to Albert Ayler; I was passionate about two types of extreme music, and was trying to forge a connection between the two. The music was noncommercial, independent, borne out of a relentless and furious need to express oneself. A drummer like Han Bennink could play with the fury of the best rock drummer, but his abilities did not make him a rock drummer. So, for me, Peter Brotzmann and Springa made a repellent – and therefore compelling – radio segue. But looking back, the two really had no business book-ending one another, in terms of musical acumen, training or intent. Jazz was on a pedestal for most of my audience, and though I learned to love one genre as much as the other, eventually I accepted that my case was that of some kid acting out, so I let it go.

Oh, but had I known about 16-17 at the time, I could have gleefully flung this argument right back at them, because here was that group, the one which kicked the pedestal over and set it on fire. Here we had a group which was able to play in free and loosely-structured arrangements with jazz AND punk sentiments (or however that outré element of their sound might be attributed), without forcing either style’s hand – because it was that force itself which catalyzed both. The decidedly non-neutral Swiss outfit originated as a duo of alto saxophonist/vocalist Alex Buess and drummer Knut Remond, adding Markus Kneubühler on his self-built guitars and power electronics rigs in time for their recorded debut. Together, they created a racket big enough to wrap structured improv around a rhythmic backbone that could limber around both rock and jazz constructs, based on minimal repetition of patterns and the subsequent deconstructive/reconstructive techniques that would advance their cause. This music was then performed with enough impact to break drumsticks, and the fingers that held them.

The recordings on this two-disc set encapsulate the core lineup’s recorded output of the 1980s. 1984’s cassette-only Hardkore & Buffbunker EP (recorded live, as are the other offerings in the set) features ruminations on themes that range from fast to faster, red-eyed and murderous. The aptly-titled tracks “Hardkore I-IV” pack all the eroding, cyclic rhythmic wallop of a bunch of wet, heavy rocks set loose inside a washing machine, while Buess splits reeds and, at certain points, disconnects the mouthpiece from the sax and just plays through that. His tone and aggression point to nothing less than violence towards the audience and anyone who happens to walk by, and when he breaks for some indecipherable vocal epithets, his throaty, ragged delivery seems to carry across all the intent that phonetics cannot. Sandwiched in between these tracks is “Buffbunker IV,” a pensive seven-minute excursion into crime soundtrack territory, with a bass-bottomed melody punctuated by outsized drum beats and atonally composed bell/synth ringouts. It’s every bit This Heat as it is Dave Grusin, and the two conflicting styles create as much tension as you could imagine.

A cleaner recording and a slightly looser, more downtown approach are evident on the trio’s self-titled 1986 LP, adding claustrophobic compaction to the seven tracks that follow. The first three tracks rely on far less low-end persistence, as Kneubühler lashes out against Buess’ sax assault with equal furor, often playing behind the bridge and coaxing non-traditional sounds out of his rig. The album finishes up on more ballasted notes, as “Davul” downshifts into a furnace of anxious, measured rhythmic torture. “Bomba Bomba” and “Watch!” split the difference between guttural noise rock and high-tension rumble, where sax bleats are used as an instrument of rhythm that walk across sheets of gravelly noise. Hearing these releases, it’s no wonder why 16-17 was plucked to open for Swans at the height of their nihilistic phase in Europe.

By the time of 1989’s When All Else Fails LP, 16-17 had become, unbelievably, even more aggressive, this time as a result of Kneubühler adding new technologies and a whole palette of unconventional sound-generating devices to his setup. The approach here is positively industrial at times, as on “Pedestrian Dub,” where sax and guitar are infused with enveloped, processed barbs that make each bleat and downstroke sound like wavering sheet metal, and Remond’s shell tones all the more alien. The cyclic rhythms of their earlier work reappear on “Who Planned All This?” and “Clap Trap,” but the rictus of dance rhythms and the drive to innovate moved the band beyond earlier works (works that John Zorn would lift wholesale for his Naked City project that surfaced around that time).

Always a side project for its members, 16-17 later surfaced with 1994’s Gyatso, the group’s first studio album, featuring devotees from the uncompromisingly crushing Pathological roster (with whom Buess contributed to Techno Animal/Godflesh side project ICE, and which included collaborators Kevin Martin and Damian Bennett, as well as Godflesh’s G.C. Green). Four years later, an EP would surface, sans Remond, on Alec Empire’s Digital Hardcore imprint; a second album would be recorded but remains unreleased. The project disbanded in 2000, just in time for new noise/free rock followers from Lightning Bolt to Sightings to pick up 16-17’s shards and spread. Purposeful of intent and driven beyond what anyone might reasonably expect, this collection is an uncompromising, forward-thinking, caustic journey through the abattoir of the mind; internal fears splayed open and infecting the public’s eyes and ears with spontaneous, psychotic passion.

By Doug Mosurock

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