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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