field report no.102117

LOCATION: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Asheville Symphony Orchestra

Asheville Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky 5th Symph

As someone who doesn't go out to the symphony all that often, I was inordinately excited to find out that Asheville has its own symphony orchestra. During the 2017-18 season, they are auditioning finalists to be the new conductor and artistic director. Each major concert of the season features a different conductor, curating a set of their choice. Rei Hotoda's lineup caught my eye for including a modern concerto written for tabla and orchestra, by Dinuk Wijeratne, along with some more traditional fare by Dvorák and Tchaikovsky.

The concerto that brought there me ended up a disappointment. Perhaps it was well played, but unfortunately the mix was way off. The mic'd tablas overwhelemed the orchestra. It was all percussion and dimly heard strings. What did make it through, sounded as if the sections of the orchestra were used in rounds, to give the soloist, Sandeep Das, free reign to navigate his circuitous rhythms through it all, but it was hard to tell.

The revelation of the evening, for me, was Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. My Tchaikovsky barely extends beyond 1812 and the Nutcracker (the latter of which I've heard the composer himself didn't care for). This was far less cloying. It relied heavily on the underused lower registers of the pit, all contrabasses and low woodwinds. It gave the work and meaty, tactile sonorous quality.

NOTES: Rei Hotoda, conductor; Dvorák; Wijeratne; Sandeep Das, tabla; Tchaikovsky; 

One Thousand Years of Trouble

Age of Chance, 1987

Long before there was Kid Rock or Rage Against the Machine, their was Age of Chance from Leeds, pioneering rap-rock. I first heard them on the legendary NME C86 compilation, and sometime shortly thereafter, picked up 1000 Years of Trouble, used on cassette. [Quick aside: cassettes may be back in fashion with the ultra-hip, but let's give them one genuine plus: used cassettes were cheap as shit, and that was kind of awesome to a kid on an allowance.] I can't say I had thought much about Age of Chance since I left for college, but a 30-year anniversary write-up on 1000 Years of Trouble run by the Quietus convinced me to go back and listen again.

With a little time and distance, Age of Chance has aged well. There was something about 80s British indies and rap music. It didn't seem quite so verboten as it did stateside—maybe it seemed as much an American innovation as one bound up in race. To a white, suburban kid in America, it felt like trespassing. Of course, nowadays, hip hop is the single most dominant force in popular music. In retrospect, 1000 Years of Trouble is more convincing to me than, say, License to Ill. Age of Chance have some real vitriol to vent and enough clattering bombast to back it up. They even were even able to score remixes from hip hop legends like Afrika Bambaataa and the Bomb Squad, which ain't nothin'.

Dance of Magic

Normon Connors, 1974

Years ago, in Chicago, I frequented a pool hall. I didn't play, but they did have an exceptional jukebox. It was one of those CD-varieties, so for a couple of dollars I could cue up all four songs of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters while I drank my beer. It was my first experience with Hancock's work outside of Miles Davis. It didn't take long before I was obsessing about his Sextant-era band, but they only made three (albeit phenomenal) albums. Somehow, it's I only recently realized how much that band, sometimes called the Mwandishi band, did in the small span of a few years in the early 70s. Each of the members had a couple-few solo albums and they appeared in clusters on other, like-minded albums as well, like Dance of Magic, by Norman Connors.

Drummer Connors' debut as a leader is stacked with talent. Featuring none other than Herbie Hancock on keyboards, he brought Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart along, playing trumpet and percussion. Future fusion star Stanley Clarke plays bass, doubling up with Cecil McBee on the first side. While Dance of Magic may not reach for the same depth of abstraction, it does drive in the same advanced, atmospheric grooves the Sextant band pioneered. Connors both expands the Mwandishi legacy, adding different shades to my collection. 

field report no.101317

LOCATION: Masonic Temple AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Bill Callahan

Even before he traded in Smog for his real name, Bill Callahan was shifting from stylized indie-rock productions to more stripped-back, malleable, folk forms. Live, he handles these simple structures with a bluesman's flair of timing—drawing out bars or speeding them up, to suit the mood or his whimsy. The electric guitarist, brought along as sole accompanist, deftly navigated his tempo shifts, adding color whilst taking care to not push the outside songs' boundaries. Despite their traditional framework, Callahan's songs never feel trite. He avoids relying on tired lyrical tropes of the styles donning. The differentiation is writ plainly on his face: where the average troubadour would be earnestly closing their eyes as they sang to covey their sincerity, Callahan stares wide-eyed into the audience, brows arched up as sings, looking charged and  electrified.

I had thought, for such a simple presentation, they had quite an elaborate stage set up, featuring a small forest of cutout trees with a multi-layer scrim painting. That was until Callahan made a comment about the oddity of it all. It must have been some part of a production going on the same stage, but really, it seemed perfect.

NOTES: Bill Callahan

a formal introduction

John Zorn is so prolific he makes indie-rock's biggest motormouth, Robert Pollard, look lazy by comparison. Even issuing upwards of 5 records a year, the consistency of each Zorn release is unimpeachable. Through endless hours of composing, recording, performing running a label, a not-for-profit arts foundation and a performance venue, Zorn has become a singular titan and kingmaker; the very image of the NYC avant garde.

Not to take away from the maestro, but he does sport crack team of masterful musicians at his ready disposal, bringing every passing whimsy to life. Hell, if I had Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Joey Baron, Mark Feldman Ikue Mori and the rest of the gang on speed dial, I could probably come up with a pretty decent album.

As such, his discography is daunting to dip into. It was intimidating when I first started collecting his albums in the late-80s, when it was just infinitesimal fraction of what new listeners face. (I was aided by a natural culling, since a lot of it used to be on expensive import labels). As nothing other than a devoted fan, I thought I would provide my own JOHN ZORN PRIMER, for the uninitiated. I've broken my choices into eight categories, giving curious listeners a framework to explore within.


It all started for me with Masada: Zorn's long-running, much lauded jazz quartet with Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron. Though, not my first John Zorn record, it was the first that blew my mind. The Masada songbook—apparently 100-deep—was an attempt to square the circle between his jewish musical heritage and his jazz tradition roots (a legacy many of his detractors questioned). Masada was also the opening salvo for his current productivity: releasing records in sets of 3, all recorded over just a few days. While there will always be special place in my heart for Gimel (or Vol.3 if you're counting), Zayin (vol.7) is an exemplary entry. Take the opener alone, Shevet represents virtually everything this group mastered so well. it's complex, fiery, melodic, exotic and sensual.

Masada eventually evolved from a band into an entire category of music unto itself: encompassing a string trio, an amped-up, electrified band and an entire 30-plus series of records, featuring different bands documenting a second songbook, titled the Book of Angels. One of the most compelling of the working groups is Bar Kokhba—a sort of chamber-jazz/ lounge-jazz hybrid sextet. With the Masada String Trio at its core, he added Joey Baron and Cyro Baptista on drums and percussion, and Marc Ribot on electric guitar. Bar Kokhba's Book of Angles album, Lucifer, is luxurious listening.


In the late 70s, Zorn began a series of exploratory compositions looking for new a new way to compose for improvisors. In previous decades, others had pioneered different techniques, like graphic scores or indeterminancy. Zorn hit upon a brilliant idea: gather a group of improvisors together and have a conductor tell them when or how to play but (crucially) not what to play. These works were collectively known as Game Pieces. The conductor uses hand signals and flash cards to guide the players, who themselves have opportunities to democratically alter the piece from within. An early game piece, not recorded or released until more recently, Xu Feng, was given a fearsome run-through  by a double trio of guitars, drums and electronics. The results are, by turns, mysterious and furious.

The most famous—and most performed—of the game pieces, is Cobra. You could call it the culmination; the end result of the previous works. Performances of Cobra are wildly explosive, filled with a scattershot, high-speed roulette of ideas and styles. Naturally, these game pieces are as much about who is performing as the work itself, a fact made crystal clear when the second album of Cobra recordings was released.  Tokyo Operations, as the title implies, is comprised of Japanese musicians and improvisors, on instruments both modern and traditional. It could not feel more different than the original Cobra album—released on HatHut in the early 80s.


John Zorn was already dubbed l'enfant terribles as early as the late-80s, but haters had no idea what was about to come their way. In quick succession, he introduced two bands for which there is no better description than 'thrash jazz'. Naked City, with it's wild, cut-n-paste aesthetic and all-star line-up—including Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Joey Baron joining Zorn—gets all the love. The other, Painkiller, was a trio of Zorn, fellow downtown denizen, Bill Laswell on bass, along with former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. Their first couple of their LPs, released on the Relapse label, are metallic in attack. Their third record, Execution Ground, is another beast entirely. The double album includes only three extended songs and two even-more-extended, ambient-dub remixes. The songs are spacious and textural, yet even more menacing than Painkiller's thrashy early material. It's all long horn squeals, reverberated bursts of blast-drums, rubbery, thick sub-bass vibrations and echoing howls.

After Masada, as John Zorn's work turned more towards lustrous melodicism, many had thought his days of audio devilry behind him. Enter, Moonchild: a trio of Joey Baron (again), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle-bassist, turned-jazzbo) and his former bandmate, the infamous Mike Patton (of Faith no More, Fantômas, and more). Across six albums, the band built a volatile vocabulary of explosive, metallic prog-jazz. Dunn's electric bass is monstrous and distorted. Baron is a ridiculously expressive drummer for how volatile his playing can be. Mike Patton is the gibberish-spewing madman with 100 different voices at the center—from flayed squeals or doomy growls to chanted mantras. John Zorn takes irreverent glee in pushing each of these players to their dextrous limits. In a way, the Moonchild repertoire is strangely operatic, Wagnerian in epic intensity. Through Moonchild, Zorn might yet reclaim the 'rock opera' from the trash-bin of history.


John Zorn does not, himself, play on his records much anymore, content to play the role of more composer, conductor and maestro. It may well be, that like many composers, he can now write pieces beyond his own ability to play—which is saying something. Anytime I've seen him perform, lately, it's been a free improv setting. While his discography is weighted towards compositions, he does have a number of truly vital improv albums. The solo, Classic Guide to Strategy, Vol.3 or Ganryu Island with Sato Michihiro on koto are both vital. I've always loved Downtown Lullaby, an easy-going meet-up of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Wayne Horvitz and Bobby Previte. By the time they cut this, they'd been playing together for decades. Lullaby feels casual—a conversation among old friends. Where many free-improv albums are busy and fiery, this is downright groovy.

The Hermetic Organ series is a curious series of albums, each improvisations on a different pipe organ. In recent interviews Zorn compares playing these immense instruments to improvising with an orchestra—the range of voices and possibility for concurrent action is so vast. I saw one of these performances in NYC, and was floored. His explorations of the organ—and by extension, the cathedral itself—are highly textural. Almost inaudible highs fill the hidden corners of the space and subsonic lows shake the very mortar. This first disc in the series is by turns atmospheric and dramatic. Though piano was his first instrument, Zorn has only appeared on keyboards a scant few times before this. The Hermetic Organ proves him intimate with the complex organism that is a pipe organ.


Somewhere after the turn of the century, a new voice started to hold sway in Zorn's work. He refers to these pieces as 'New Romantic'. The works are deeply melodic and some of the most plainly beautiful he has written or recorded. Modes and themes developed when building the Masada songbooks are apparent, as well are shades of Martin Denny's exotica and Astor Piazzolla's tangos. Kenny Wollessen is an almost constant presence on vibraphone, giving the albums a shimmering quality. Mount Analogue is a major and unique work in the catalog. It plays as a single, multi-part suite, performed by longtime Zorn cohort, percussionist Cyro Baptista and his Banquet of the Spirits (with Wollessen guesting, of course).

The most gorgeous and prolific band performing new romantic works is the Gnostic Trio, who took their name from their first album, the Gnostic Preludes. The trio made up of Carol Emanuel on harp, Kenny Wollessen on vibes and Bill Frisell (back in the fold) on guitar are sublime together. Each of the instruments has its distinct sound, but at any given point, each one becomes so intertwined with the others, they'll create a single hybrid voice. Even the solos are deeply woven within the fabric of the flow and the group interplay. It's difficult to spot where they begin or end. The results are spellbinding.


The early groundwork for the new romantic pieces can be found amongst John Zorn's prolific scoring for film. There are a handful albums in his Filmworks series that presage his exotica bent, but I'm partial to The Treatment. Featuring a group led by violin and accordion, it steers toward a stronger tango feel. Without percussion the album also carries airs of chamber jazz. The cues are long enough to give each piece the feel of a fully-fleshed song. The group clearly enjoy digging into these light-hearted charts.

The Filmworks series totals 25 albums, now, and encompasses almost every aspect of Zorn's oeuvre. Workingman's Death, a score for a documentary about deadly jobs in third world countries, is a rarer facet of Zorn. Many of his more abrasive works are also visceral and rockist. Workingman's Death, instead, is seething and unsettling. Heavy on electronics, there is little purchase for the listener. It's all slippery, unstable tonal centers and uncomfortable pitches. It cloudy, threatening atmosphere is engrossing.


With the establishment of his own label in the mid-90s, John Zorn began releasing albums of orchestral and chamber music. At first, it seemed a lark, has, but as various strains of his work have come together, it's shaping up as a major part of his legacy. When given the palette of an entire symphony orchestra, his penchant for fast-paced changes actually speeds up. Now, different voices in the orchestra can change gears in shifting layers. It's enough to give a casual listener whiplash. It's in this format, more than elsewhere, the influence of the Looney Toons composer, Carl Stalling, is apparent. There's a darker, dramatic streak in Zorn's work, though. His fascination with mysticism and the occult color his orchestrations with a gothic twist.

There's more to his orchestral work than virtuosic showpieces. Dark River, scored for a duo concert bass drums, is all restraint—focusing on silence, spacing and deep resonance. Kol Nidre is a quartet that's been scored for strings or reeds (and even performed in a full orchestral arrangement). An insistent but plaintive work, it hinges on a simple concept: a single tremulous chord is held in sustained vibrato, sweeping up and down in force is periodically punctuated by a poignant, melodic chorus. Making the most of expectations and anticipation, he builds drama by making you wait for the melody, or refocusing your attention by dipping the held pitch unexpectedly. A versatile and lovely work, Kol Nidre is one his most performed and recorded chamber pieces.


There is an especially hard to categorize area of John Zorn's catalog. Highly composed, but not in any traditional mode, for lack of a better term, it is simply 'avant garde'. New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands is a prime example of this vague terrain (and one of my all-time favorites). Three extended pieces of spoken word, with texts from different authors and each narrated in a different language (Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese). They're accompanied by a different twin pairing of guitar, drum or keyboard duos. The music closely follows the rhythm and cadence of speech, making the music both logical yet unpredictable.

Nova Express crosses two streams of Zorn's career. Taking influence from William Burroughs' and Brian Gysin's experiments with cut-ups, Nova Express recasts the hyperactivity of Naked City with instrumentation and moods from his new romantic work. The breakneck performances on the record are utterly amazing. Kenny Wollessen is dextrous on the vibraphone, playing with untold speed and precision. Pianist John Medeski leads the band through hairpin turns while Joey Baron and Trevor Dunn whip the band to ever-more harrowing speeds. As they careen through Zorn's charts, it's like cliffside car chase from a film noir watched in fast-forward.

These sixteen albums are just the tip of the iceberg. I long ago lost count of how many records Zorn's put out—his discography easily clears 2-or-300—and he shows no sign of slowing down. Each of them was chosen to stand in for an entire branch of John Zorn's output. Even within these categories, I tried to pick records that were recorded at least a decade apart, to give a broader sampling of his evolution and growth. I hope I've provided a foothold, some insight or access to an artist who is, at this point, a living legend.

field report no.100317

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Ballister

A mere six months after catching Dave Rempis solo, his long-running trio, Ballister, rolled through Asheville. The group features fellow Vandermark 5 alum, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and tenor guitar, as well as the ubiquitous Norwegian, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Ballister's is a powerhouse sound, cast in the mold of bombastic FMP-era groups, but after 8 albums and 7 years of touring, they've developed a nuanced communication only well-heeled bands have access to.

In this raucous context, Rempis dips into his gut-bucket skronk more than he did on the solo set. Lonberg-Holm frequently plays the wildcard, pushing the trio over the precipice, sawing at the cello and running it through guitar pedals for a metallic edge. Nilssen-Love, for all his power, never just pummels his kit. He punctuates, deftly finding open spaces, even in an all out scrum.

NOTES: Ballister; Omnicaster


Seventeen Seconds

Frankie Rose, 2017

Cover tunes are rarely be for the original artists' fans. Firstly, It's nearly impossible that you'll ever improve upon their beloved songs. If you deviate too much in making the song your own, you'll probably offend. Conversely, if you adhere too closely to the original, you'll wind up simply redundant. The stakes are raised even higher when one artist covers another's entire record from beginning-to-end.

Turntable Kitchen, a quaint little label/purveyor, has begun commissioning a series of just such full-album covers. For her entry in the series, Frankie Rose tackled the Cure's Seventeen Sedconds—which, admittedly seems safer than say, Disintegration. Sure, the Cure has millions of fans, and some are, statistically, bound to cherish Seventeen Seconds above all others, but you're facing better odds. Many who hear this only have a passing familiarity with the album.

Musically, Rose does her best to capture the sound of the Cure's Seventeen Seconds. It's a sparse, moody album, more about ambiance than pop hooks. Without the right feel, it wouldn't pass as a proper cover. The real shift here is her voice: cool and distant, a for more relaxed thing than the young Robert Smith's. Rose's version is dusky and sultry where The Cure's is all angst-ridden nerve endings. By neither imitating nor reinventing, Rose affords us a chance to reassess Seventeen Seconds.


Michael Gordon, 2017

The sheet music for Sonatra (for solo piano) came with the LP—which features Gordon's work performed twice by Vicky Chow (of Bang On a Can): once in equal temperament and again in just intonation. On paper, the piece looks deadly simple, but I'm sure it's fucking murder to execute. Chow maintains a clockwork tempo as eighth notes climb up then cascade down scales in interlocking, two-handed patterns. The insane tension of it would be utterly lost if Sonatra were simply loaded and played as MIDI. Maybe we're so attuned to the subtlest shifts in tempo we inevitably pick up Chow's human fluctuations, or perhaps we're just dumbstruck at her accomplishment.

The work itself is hypnotic in its bloody-mindedness. So much so, there's a hint of disappointment when some slides down the keyboard come in towards the end, breaking the spell. I have a slight preference for the just intonation variation. The resonances clang in unexpected ways, giving a piece of such superhuman rigor a hint of surprise.

remedies fr yr maladies

With the CDC saying there's a particularly virulent strain of the flu going around—one not expected and therefore not covered in the vaccine for this season—odds are, at some point this winter, you're going to find yourself bedridden. You might, in that situation find solace, if not relief, in this recipe.

I tried as many variations on garlic soup as I could find. I wanted something, well… garlicky, but I didn't want it to be boring and one-dimensional. It needed to be robust and not thin and broth-y, without distracting unduly from the hero of the dish. What I've developed is a full-forced garlic broth, cooked with pasta and lima beans (for complimentary heft). It's finished by tempering eggs into the broth and serving with a swirl of raw kale pesto, bringing some healthy greens and a pungent raw garlic bite to contrast with the savory cooked garlic. This can all come together surprisingly quick, even under 30 minutes.

6 cloves of garlic, minced
½ tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
4 cups vegetable stock
1 tbs dark miso (optional)
1 cup small pasta (elbow, penne or rotini)
1 cup frozen lima beans (or peas)
2 eggs, beaten

5-6 large leaves lacinto / dinosaur kale, stemmed
2 cloves of garlic peeled
1 tbs pine nuts, lightly toasted
1-2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 pinch crushed red pepper
juice of 1 lime

Toast the pine nuts lightly in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring often. In a food processor, compine 2 whole, peeled cloves of garlic with the pine nuts, kale, salt, red pepper and 1 tbs of olive oil. Pulse it until it is well combined, adding more oil as needed. Remove to a mixing bowl and fold in lime juice to taste.

In a measuring cup, whip the miso with a half-cup of vegetable stock until dissolved. Combine with the rest of the stock in a soup pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and add garlic, thyme, bay and salt. Cover and simmer for 15 min. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente (stirring occasionally). Add frozen beans to the soup and simmer 1 more minute.

Turn the heat down to the lowest setting. Working quickly, beat two eggs in a measuring cup, remove broth from the pot 2 tablespoons at a time and whip it into the eggs. Repeat until the mixture is hot, nearly as hot as the soup. You want the eggs to become tempered to the heat without cooking them into solidity. It might take upwards of two cups of broth. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the egg mixture.

Serve each bowl with a heaping tablespoon of kale pesto, and maybe something tasty, like a toasted baguette, sprinkled with parmesan.

It's worth noting that it only makes sense to make as much soup as you will eat in one sitting. The pasta will get overly soft in the fridge and the egg will separate upon reheating. That said, I do often make extra of the kale pesto and save it for a later, quick and easy meal of pasta with pesto.

Oleva / Life… It Eats You Up

Ø, 2008 / Mika Vainio, 2011

Mika Vainio was a rare artist: he created his space and in the process spawned an entire genre. It's wrong to call his work 'synth' music, it was raw synthesis, without any intermediary. Sounds generated by excess electricity were corralled and wrangled into artful shapes by the simplest of means and deft hands. Vainio's work, solo and as half of Pan Sonic always about, and transformed, space. His restraint spoke as loudly as any of the monumental, distorted swells he would conjure. 

Oleva and Life… It Eats You Up represent those two of the extremes in Mika's work. HIs recordings under the name, Ø (pronounced Ohm), rank among his most delicate. Crystalline tones pop in cavernous halls, long pitches are gently bent across the horizon, a fathomless bass haunts the mix without ever fully surfacing. On Oleva, we get a glimpse into Vainio's influences as he offers up a minimal electronic (and strikingly gorgeous) rendering of Pink Floyd's Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Where Oleva is pristine, It Eats You Up revels in violence. For just this once, Vainio used a more terrestrial sound source: Life is a collection of guitar manipulations. Titles like Ravanous Edge or Open Up and Bleed capture the gnarled crunch of it all. While the the strings give a tactile presence to the death rattle of this guitar, the results are unmistakably Vainio.

field report no.092817

SUBJECT: Rafael Toral

A very unscientific poll implies Rafael Toral's fans are split along the two portions of his career. I've found little overlap between his ambient-electronic guitar manipulation pieces and his  homemade electronics improvisations. While I've enjoyed both, it's by dint of viewing the two phases of Toral's work-to-date as if by separate artists.

When I heard this show announced in a preamble to the Daniel Levin show (the week before) at Revolve, I could hardly believe it. That he would play a gallery space in Asheville, NC, seemed too improbable. Toral's work seems so isolated and niche, I counted myself lucky catching him a few years ago, in NYC.

Toral performs with smaell, curious, make-shift electronic devices that seem homemade. Many of them work, on some level, with feedback. This emphasizes gesture, making him move his arms in wide sweeps to control the sound, occasionally using his body as a dampener. The delicacy of his control, his expressive touch with these somewhat crude tools is nothing short of impressive.

Unfortunately the tools themselves are not nearly as expressive as he is. Monophonic and with a throttled tonal range, he wrings everything possible from them, yet it can still feel two dimensional. I would rather, given a chance to see him again, catch a duo or trio setting. He'd thrive in a scenario where there's something for him to play off. He could even introduce some expansion effects—variable delay or reverb—to add a depth of dynamics to the sound.

NOTES: Rafael Toral; ANKA

Black Peak

Xylouris White, 2016

Xylouris White had been swirling around my usual circles for a some time, but I didn't actually hear their music until I caught them at the 2017 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. They make quite an impression. Pairing rousing Mediterranean folk forms with a propulsive and elastic post-punk rhythm sounds good, even on paper, but Giorgis Xylouris (on lute and vocals) and Australian out-rock legend Jim White (on drums) have a kinetic interplay that's practically a third member of the band. Black Peak was one of the two LPs I came home with from that day at the festival, and Xylouris White a band I frequently tip friends to.

Before You, I Appear

Sumac, 2017

I knew I wanted Before You, I Appear at first blush. It was on order before I had even discovered it was lead by Aaron Turner (most famously of Isis and my personal favorite: Mamiffer). Remixes of heavy metal—no matter how experimental—feel more transgressive than the original could hope to be. I just don't picture many metalheads out there pining for deconstructions of their favorites; begging the question who the intended audience actually is. Of course, the remixes here—including Samuel Kerridge and Kevin Drumm—are similarly hellbent, so this is no exercise in commercial gentrification and won't be found dropped into many DJ sets. As a noisenik, myself, maintaining a non-committal relationship with heavy metal, it's an unholy marriage (in the best sense).

No Future

Moiré, 2017

Downtempo, like any style striving to remain somewhat unobtrusive, too easily veers into vapidity; becoming ignorable. Moiré avoids this pitfall by infusing blunted beats with acid house tensions. Rich bubbles of analogue bass tip into 303 squelches. In fact, No Future takes most of its cues from minimal techno, which makes it right at home on the Ghostly label, out of Detroit (the minimal techno ground zero). That dichotomy, balancing a head-nodding lope with a simmering pressure from below, rescues No Future from any staid sub-generic boundaries.

field report no.092517

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: The Church

The Church were as stately as ever. The last time I saw them, they were touring their sophomore album, from 1982, in its entirety. This night they were focused on promoting their new album, Man Woman Life Death Infinity. While they're conscientious to sprinkle in fan favorites from their 35 year career, The Church remain moving forward. They've never simply tread water.  While their sound has progressed and evolved, neither has it radically shifted. Many of the newest developments came when leader Steve Kilbey ceded his bass duties to a roadie, freeing him to deliver more daring vocals for songs, like Undersea, that are unique in their catalog. Submarine pushes their atmospheric psychedelic leanings as far as they've been. Meanwhile, I Don't Know How, I Don't Why is formed in a classic Church mold, and would easily be a highlight from any LP in their last decade.  Speaking of, I don't know why I never noticed the krautrock motorik pulse underneath their 80s single Tantalized, but live, there was no denying it. 

NOTES: The Church; Helio Sequence

Utonian Automatic / Synesthesia / Mandarin Movie / Stars Have Shapes / Double Demon / Beija Flors Velho e Sujo / Primative Jupiter / Some Jellyfish Live Forever

Isotope 217˚, 1999 / Chicago Underground Duo, 2000 / Mandarin Movie, 2005, / Exploding Star Orchestra, 2010 / Starlicker, 2011 / Sao Paulo Underground, 2013 / Pharoah and the Underground, 2014 / Rob Mazurek & Jeff Parker, 2015

Chicago was my home from 1995 until early 2006. Even accounting for a haze of nostalgia, it was a significant time in the city's history of jazz, marking a period of renewal and rebuilding that saw a number of new voices emerge from the city that would become world-renowned figures in improvised music. It just also happened to be home to my very own epiphanies in jazz. This combination has created my undying loyalty to the Chicago scene—which explains why I have 8 recordes by Rob Mazurek (leading various groups and spanning nearly 20 years).

Out the gate, Mazurek showed little allegiance to jazz orthodoxy. Isotope 217˚, one of his earliest working groups, featured 2 members of tortoise: John Herndon and Dan Bitney. Isotope paved the way to reconstituting 'jazz rock's tarnished name. It seems no small coincidence that this band shares (most) of it's name with a 1970s prog band that once counted Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper as a member. He would dig even deeper into this vein with Mandarin Movie, a one-off band that courted genre mash-ups like ambient jazz metal.

Of his more jazz-tinged outfits, the Chicago Underground Duo (sometimes Trio or Quartet) still freely veers into far-flung territories, like ambient electronics. More than any of of his early work, this working group—which always featured drummer Chad Taylor as his principle foil—set the tone for many of his future explorations. There's an emphasis on improvisation that favors abstraction, but never forgets melodic hooks. Meanwhile, the São Paulo Undergeround trio seems another beast entirely, at first. They lean heavily on electronics—often sounding like some particularly outernational downtempo—that balance of abstraction and melody is still the guiding factor.  

Many of Mazurek's larger groups are extensions of the two Underground outfits. The Primative Jupiter LP is a combination of those 2 bands for a set built around legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Exploding Star Orchestra features many of the same players, pursuing some of Mazurek's most most expansive, sprawling creations to date. Stars Have Shapes is handily one his most satisfying releases yet (admittedly, though, the vinyl version is severely edited down from the CD / download version and loses some of the drifting impact).

Most recently, Mazurek's groups have been contracting, bringing it back to base. Starlicker was another one-off, but this one a small tiro featuring John Herndon (of Tortoise, again) and vibraphone wunderkind Jason Adasiewicz. Even in a more traditional lineup like this, you'd still be hard-pressed to prove there were no electronics involved. The playing is dense and all lines blurred. Rob's even been plying more duo records of late (outside of the Chicago Undergound), but Some Jellyfish Live Forever is exceptional among them, a guitar / cornet duo between Mazurek and guitarist Jeff Parker. They've been sparring on-and-off for over a decade now, and it shows in the harmony of their instrumental visions.

Chicago has produced some of the most hard-working, trend-blind musicians in improvised music in the last twenty years. From the rise of leaders like Ken Vandermark and Rob Mazurek to, now, Tomeka Reid, Jason Adasiewicz and Nicole MItchell, means it is not a trend about to relent. New York may well always be the mecca of jazz, but don't take your eye off Chicago for too long.

The Land of Look Behind

K.Leimer 1982


Between Laraaji reissues, the vaporware scene, and Colin Stetson namedropping Enya, New Age music is enjoying an hipness it frankly never enjoyed before. Amongst all the audio archeology of 80s synth music, there's bound to a few gems amongst all the lesser duds that just are well forgotten. On that spectrum, The Land of Look Behind is a semi-precious stone, at least (topaz, maybe).

Surprisingly, this proto-ambient-electornica work started life as the soundtrack to a documentary on Bob Marley's funeral. K.Leimer wisely avoided trying to appropriate island styles (nary a skank-beat to be found here), instead letting faint field recordings represent the place itself. The icy keyboard tones mixed with chop-shop drumming calls to mind work Richard H. Kirk's would be doing 10 years later. There's a vari-speed tape warble to his loops that would make Oneohtrix Point Never jealous.

Rarely, do soundtracks actually bring out the best in musicians, but The Land of Look Behind would be hard to beat.

field report no.092217

SUBJECT: Daniel Levin

I'd only just caught wind of Daniel Levin with the recent Live at Firehouse 12 set. I was busy playing catch-up with his discography (as is my wont) when I saw this show, in an Asheville gallery space, announced. The relative scarcity of high calibre of improvised music in our remote region made it must-see for me and the (maybe) 50-or-so people who could cram into Revolve's listening space this night.

The solo performance we witnessed was in the Tristan Honsinger / Tom Cora tradition: the cello serves as a resonant sounding board to be tapped, scraped and rubbed with any traditional soundings relegated to mere filigree. At times it's a more of a focal point for the activity around it, almost a prop to remind us of the performance's musical origins. Yet, it's hard not to search for the rhythmic pulse at the heart of it all, even as he stomps the earth and flaps crumpled pages of a notebook about, arms outstretched. Such is our minds' visceral need to order sound, no matter how abstract.

NOTES: Daniel Levin, solo; Sonic Parlour & Constance Humphries

Earrings Off!

Adult Jazz, 2016

The new millennium brought a new breed of art-rock: a hybridized, deeply psychedelic brand of day-glo pop. It's served smothered in dizzying effects and digitally manipulated in the most minute ways, some that weren't possible just a handful of years ago. Operating as collagists, bands like Adult Jazz build intricately constructed vistas spiked with sonic non-sequiturs. It's a maximalist deluge meant to disorient, keeping Earrings Off! unsteady and unpredictable even without that spark of live spontaneity. If the devil is in the details, Adult Jazz is downright demonic.


Polyrock, 1980

On paper, Polyrock seems archetypical NYC Post-Punk. They're all nervous energy with the songwriting wound tight—landing somewhere between Devo and the Cars.  None other than Philip Glass produced and assisted this eponymous debut. Which makes it all the more curious it's such an overlooked obscurity—languishing in the vaults until recently, when RCA saw fit to reissue their two LPs digitally. (We're still waiting on the Above the Fruited Plain EP). Post-Punk suffers from surplus to supply: there's a great bands from the top shelf down to the rails, much of it is bound to get footnoted out of the canonical texts. Polyrock deserves a better fate.