Thursday, December 22, 2011


Here divided into two Vimeo clips is a one hour performance filmed and edited by Vile Vortices Productions featuring Chaos of the Haunted Spire, a Belgian experimental free jazz duo comprising Andrew Claes (saxophone and processing) and Teun Verbruggen (drumkit and processing). The set took place on January 26, 2010 at the Make It Up Club, an avant garde improvised music and sound performance program run every Tuesday night at Bar Open in Fitzroy, Melbourne.

Chaos of the Haunted Spire - live Pt1 from vile vortices on Vimeo.

There are similarities in the duo's high octane combination of jazz interplay and ambient EAI soundscapes with Fireroom, the trio of Lasse Marhaug, Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love, but there are caveats to this comparison.  Marhaug's electronics add tangential irritant/stimulant value to Vandermark and Nilssen-Love's sax and drums, the cross-fire producing occasional pearls of sonic intertextuality, but the music of Chaos of the Haunted Spire comes from a more organic and hypnagogic zone. Claes and Verbruggen play and then process the results with effects pedals and laptop programming, either singularly or in combination, producing densely interwoven layers of real time performance and analog/digital abstraction.

Chaos of the Haunted Spire - live Pt2 from vile vortices on Vimeo.

As with Miles Davis and Teo Macero's fusion experimentation in the early 1970s, virtuoso musicianship coalesces with samples, chirrupy electronics and cinematic temporal shifts.  Teun Verbruggen's stick work can free swing like Hamid Drake and charge headlong into boiling avant-funk like Christian Vander with his Koba├»en dander up. The employment of extended technique, by contrast, has all the delicacy of touch that Verbruggen brings as an accompanist for more restrained jazz composition in the Jef Neve Trio.  Claes's playing combines overblown runs with plaintive appeals like a cross between the monstrous plasticity of Toshinori Kondo's trumpet work in the Die Like A Dog quartet and a more strangled version of Courtney Pine's doom-laden sax laments on the Angel Heart soundtrack. The combination of all these elements make for a near hour of stimulating free jazz - complex, exciting and as haunting as the name suggests.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011



Marco Fusinato isn’t so much a guitar ‘player’ as he is a conduit for the instrument’s traversal along the path toward amplification. There is less of an inclination to elicit sound in a manner determined by sheer physicality as there is a tendency to let the guitar feedback upon itself in a constantly regenerative cycle with Fusinato stepping in only to disfigure the resulting vibrations. In contrast to the feedback bludgeoning typically associated with the headliners, this set amounted to a demonstration by Fusinato of the guitar as a medium through which he articulates and channels an amalgam of sounds characterised in equal measures by an alien quality as it they are by a quotidian familiarity.
The set evoked the feeling of being surrounded by the static murmuring of a thousand television sets interspersed by almost reverent blocks of silence; this sonic impression was accentuated by the cerulean hues of a subtle lighting arrangement reminiscent of television static in a darkened room.

The O’Malley/Ambachi guitar duo was originally meant to be accompanied by respected extreme metal drummer Matt ‘Skitz’ Sanders as a reprisal of their series of gigs performed under the ‘Gravetemple’ moniker in 2008. Illness ultimately prevented Skitz’s involvement in this particular performance and he was replaced by Melbourne drummer Brad Smith, a participant in a number of grindcore and noise projects. It was interesting to see how O’Malley and Ambarchi would adapt their musicianship to Smith’s autodidactic and vaguely jazz infused approach to grindcore drumming (much in a similar vein to fellow Melbourne drummer Sean Baxter). Indeed, while Smith is of far less renown than the aforementioned guitarists, his role as a drummer granted him the unique opportunity to significantly influence the aesthetic direction of the largely improvised performance.

Contrary to expectations, O’Malley and Ambarchi opted to commence with clean, reverb laden and sparsely phrased guitar motifs which invoked a measured approach on Smith’s part. Ambarchi diverged from this rather startlingly mellow pastiche of sounds with some effects laden nuances; in response, O’Malley eventually directed the piece toward something more typical of the heavy metal idiom. The culmination of the cymbal phrasing which had persisted throughout the set in a pulsating and wholly atavistic battering of the toms blended well with this divergence. 

It was at this point that the gig took an impromptu turn with the failure of O’Malley’s amplifier, in response to which he delivered a guitar lesson with relish and legerdemain. Having resolved this issue, the three musicians embarked on the second half of the set which was more characteristic of the Sunn O))) aesthetic. While sonically satisfying for the most part, it was at this point that the interplay between the three musicians did not come across as coherently as it could have. 

The repetitious and minimalistic nature of Ambarchi and O’Malley’s guitar playing is such that it significantly limits the scope within which other participants can adapt their playing. Such repetition tends to invite equally repetitious playing admirable for the mental and physical exertion involved. On the other hand, the more imaginative or technically proficient player is often wont to employ a variety of technical skills as a means of complementing this repetition in a climactic fashion. Smith opted for the latter and while his efforts were respectable, it seemed at times that he was at a loss as to where exactly to direct his efforts. Rather than there being any obvious missed cues or false starts, there seemed a distinct lack of awareness and sensitivity to Smith’s subtleties on the part of both O’Malley and Ambarchi. In spite of this lack of engagement, he sought to explore the parameters of his own musicianship, alternating through a variety of drum patterns, fills, blast beats and cymbal rushes.

Smith’s efforts were not in vain, however, as his approach to the music was realised toward the latter stages of the set in an uninhibited and frenetic battering of the drum kit as O’Malley and Ambarchi gradually allowed the chord progressions they had thus far played in unison to climatically disintegrate towards a free form exploration of the guitar which could well have served as a tip of the hat to Fusinato. 

With any Ambarchi/O’Malley live performance, cripplingly dense guitar tones, irresponsibly loud explorations into the most nadir recesses of the ‘metal’ aesthetic and the occasional smoke machine are a certainty. Yet, the uncertainty and caprice associated with improvised music rendered this performance not as cataclysmically memorable as the Pentemple or Gravetemple gigs which long preceded and inspired it. Still, the gig had its merits. The first half of the set exhibited within these musicians a musicality less dependent on the quality of speaker cabinets than a genuinely harmonised conjuring of atmospheric call-and-response interludes. Brad Smith's efforts demonstrated his imaginative grasp of the drums to far exceed his relatively young years and indicate a promising career ahead within the avant garde idiom.

Words & Photos: (C) Tony Batsen  (2011)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


    Experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi most often performs solo, glitch-laden loops providing the rhythmic currents of his mutant electronica, but it's understandable he's occasionally drawn to having greater metric flexibility at his disposal given his origins as a drummer.  His ongoing collaboration with Robbie Avenaim has borne fruit in such landmark recordings as The Alter Rebbe's Nigun (Tzadik, 1999) and Clockwork (Room40, 2005) in addition to recent European and Asian tours featuring Avenaim's MIDI controlled kickdrums and motorised percussion. A set with Mani Neumeier at The Toff in February, 2009 saw that pairing conjure an epic psychedelic rock improv, the German drummer's polyrhythmic expressionism spurring Ambarchi through a spectrum of modes: tentative, melodic phrasing imbued with alpine yearning giving way to drone blasts like Tibetan Buddhist horns; laminar accretions of ostinato and oscillation; fuzz-wah soloing pitched tonally somewhere between John McLaughlin's incendiary acid funk contributions to the psychedelic fusion of Miles Davis' Big Fun and Keiji Haino's vocalistic phrasing. His new venture with Joe Talia represents a further evolutionary stage by fusing live rhythms to the sulfurous FX sculpture of his dark ambient solo improvs.

   As the latest percussion partner for Ambarchi, Talia doesn't fit the mould of exuberant showmanship that Neumeier has made his stock in trade since Guru Guru's festival stealing appearances in the 70s, nor is he an experimentalist like Avenaim who uses automata and sine tones to generate chromatic tension before action painting it with multiple stroke explosions. Talia has a restrained presence and he achieves a nuanced symmetry with Ambarchi's textural soundscapes. As timekeeper for The Escalators, he has a line in hypnotic ride grooves that would do the late Tony Williams proud. His cymbal work provides a shimmering thread through a 20 minute set which imbues improv's archetypal bell curve with contours redolent of the ambient black metal of Ambarchi's group Gravetemple and the progressive fusion of Arcana, Williams' final project.

    The duo participate in a historical synthesis of jazz and metal aesthetics that reached a high watermark in the release of Arcana's final album, Arc of the Testimony, in 1997. New York-based saxophonist/composer John Zorn, an early mentor of Ambarchi's, pursued stylistic syncretism via disjunctive noir collage and hardcore/hard bop meltdown in the Naked City and Painkiller projects. Bass player/producer Bill Laswell brought a space dub sensibility to Arcana and Painkiller, a suitably liquid medium for jazz-metal osmosis. The Ambarchi and Talia duo extrapolate several plot points on this historical arc. They replace the modal soloing and nebulous head of Arc of the Testimony's superb opener 'Gone Tomorrow' with avant metal's blackened austerity, but retain its properties of ambient drift and dramatic propulsion, its capacity for sending the listener's imagination hurtling toward a mysterious destination with exultant unease.

   Ambarchi drapes strands of feedback tones over a ride pattern percolating with triplets. Resonant whines and growls build gradually in volume, emanate through the performance space, then splinter into ululating fragments: in contrast to the menacing dronescapes he creates for the Gravetemple and Burial Chamber trios, these are fractured glimpses of immanence rather than extended Niblockian horizons. A vibrant tension emerges from the juxtaposition of these cocoons of febrile, atonal harmony and the steady rhythm: impermanence and insistency locked in uneasy orbit. Dramatic low end bends, a slight concession to conventional black metal moves, signal a change in phase to greater turbulence.

   Ambarchi and Talia are drummers who borrow more from free players with the idiosyncrasies of autodidacts than, say, the hyperslick jazz virtuosity of a Billy Cobham, or the dense blast gridwork of Gravetemple cohort Matt 'Skitz' Sanders; their styles are less locked into generic formulae, more capable of blending in with the abstract improvisational settings that are their chosen metier. A good example is Ambarchi's drum solo that enters at the 45 minute mark of The Holy Down, Gravetemple's finest hour (literally) to date. Its chaotic rain of rolls and cymbal splash comes from a more programmatic dimension than your typical metal solo; it's an expression of ecstatic outrage, a cathartic reaction to a succession of blasphemous musical images. In the duo set, Talia provides a more tangential role to Ambarchi's guitar-electronics manipulations, unleashing an ever splintering algebra of snare, cymbal and kick drum. There's a ragged sympathy with the sonic blocks that Ambarchi carves from his set up, brutally extruded shards and mesmeric howls that evoke the strobophonic miasma of Les Rallizes Denudes frontman Takashi Mizutani. 
   The austerity of this music can be a bit of a dual-edged sword as a certain unification and intensification of effect is allowed to dissipate in the gradual entropic wind down. But even in this emptier section of the set there's arresting detail. Stray guitar phrases ring out with a penumbra of amp hum and signal clicks, like a country station picked up on some randomly swept radio dial. It's reminiscent of that duet with Mani Neumeier where Ambarchi incorporated folk and funk elements with drones and loop layering. At its sustained peak, this is an exciting reimagined jazz-rock that marries all the fluid invention and elemental power endemic to both fields. Its music that deserves to be captured in a recording and released soon; judicious mixing and mastering would accentuate its compelling spatial elements.

Words & photos: (C) JONATHON KROMKA (2011)

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