Free jazz is hot in Europe; Berlin has become a mecca for all things weird whereas record labels like Intakt and Clean Feed manage to push boundaries by showcasing a wide array of different ideas of improvisation. In the case of the band combining the efforts of Isak Hedtjärn, Lisa Ullén, Elsa Bergman, and Erik Carlsson, the origination of sound is rooted in Scandinavia, where many different universities and ensembles have pushed young musicians to challenge themselves in a less composed setting. On this self-titled debut record, Festen showcase strong playing abilities, but fail to form a unique identity by remaining a bit too conservatively dedicated to the free jazz idiom.
One of the tough aspects of music of this genre is the aesthetic limitations of acoustic instrumentation. Obviously, electricity isn’t required to create engaging musicality, however, the classic ‘four players in a room with standard recording techniques improvising’ album form has been attempted countless times resulting in an especially difficult task for the ideal of originality. The group is not helped by their seeming lack of extended technique. Some of the more intriguing free jazz musicians of the world have developed strong abilities to play with texture and the faults in their selected instruments. In the case of Nate Wooley, the idea of what constitutes a “note” on the trumpet is in constant flux. Despite showcasing a wide range of licks, Festen clarinetist Isak Hedtjärn remains all too close the traditional clarinet work to be considered experimental or unique.
Even the idea of contrast seems to be a difficult concept for this group. All too often the album walks along at a moderate tempo with the rhythm section failing to truly interact with the melodic work of Hedtjärn. The Dynamic levels seem to be all too stagnant as well. On “It Never Gets Better Than This,” a brief moment of space is left on occasion, each time quickly returning to the safety of familiarity.
Overall, I just didn’t find anything memorable about this album upon my first listen. Although the piece manages to engage in contrast, development, and furious energy, the group doesn’t truly break from the pack resulting in a forgettable collection of pieces.
Tony Malaby’s tense melody on album opener “Minimalism/416-538-7149” perfectly sets the tone for the piece and the rest of the album that follows. His minor, dark tonalities are surrounded by oscillating strings with Fraser’s textural drum approach serving as the group’s glue.
“Minimalism” serves as a concise rundown of the band’s skills as they quickly move from abstract beginnings to a more hectic climax without over-emphasizing any particular level of energy. As the album moves forward more exploration is done and time spent on specific levels of energy and dynamics, however, by lightly touching upon the band’s conception of sound development, “Minimalism” obtains a lot of replay value.
The group’s aesthetic is extraordinarily malleable with any player prone to work in the foreground or background depending on the stage of the song’s development. This dynamic aspect of the ensemble’s sound conception is accomplished through the lack of stagnant root. Fraser dances around the meter expertly while the absence of piano, an instrument prone to chordal repetition, allows the group to be extremely collective as all of their ideas may bounce off of each other in the non-hierarchical space. Another symptom of the piano-less void is a certain lightness that the songs carry. On this track in particular the plucking strings complement Malaby’s staccato.
Starer is a fantastic album. It’s development and dynamicism combine for a beautiful level of musicality with the quick-hitting natures of the song maintaining the attention of the audience through every nook and cranny.
Blood Orange open their new album in a big way with the track “By Ourselves.” Massive symphonic vocals wring in a sample of Ashlee Haze’s powerful “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem),” making a statement of the importance of feminism in relation to the career of rapper Missy Elliot. From this point forward, the album obtains a mellow aesthetic with cool keyboard sounds and clear vocal lines speaking over the subdued electronically tinged r/b beats.
The album contains a wide array of influence with each track maintaining a unique personality. On “Best to You,” a punching bass line is highlighted by delicious percussive textures alluding to a warm soundscape. Dev Hynes’ introverted vocals are contrasted by the more outspoken delivery of feature artist Empress Of. Dance vibes continue into “E.V.P.” where deep bass vocals combine with articulated guitar rhythms and slap bass, leaning more towards the funk idiom. The end of this track features a fantastic drum solo with rhythms coming at all different frequencies, leading into a mysterious whispery ending placing the audience in the mindset for the undefined nature of “Love Ya.”
The album thrives on Hynes’ astounding ability to transition between his songs. Whether it be the use of a short interlude track or vocal/instrumental sample, the album continuously makes an effort to sensibly move from idea to idea. Also, the transitions hide the song forms. Although there are often relatively straightforward verses and choruses, they are hidden within each track by the transitional space, which somehow manages to vary a great deal.
Overall the production remains intriguing from beginning to end. Sometimes funk artists over indulge themselves in groove making for a slightly obnoxious aesthetic, however, Hynes’ mellow vocal conception helps the work maintain a constant sense of subtlety. All that said there are some overly retro tracks. “Hands Up” gives off a bit of an excessive 80s vibe, whereas “Jucy 1-4” stagnates on visceral vocal work.
Freetown Sound left a great first impression on me. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. There were some dull moments, further listens will determine how problematic they are to the overall product.
Jungle is a group with a lot of fire power. Matthew Shipp’s explosive deep piano playing can over power nearly anyone and Hamid Drake’s heavy handed grooves yield big moments. On Jungle, fire power certainly provides some of the most shocking moments, however, the group leaves room for subtlety, always keeping their intensity in check with thought provoking space.
Walerian begins the album on flute, setting the tone for more climactic points with idea-brewing groundwork. As the piece moves forward, the trio begins a long string of group playing with near groove-like states emerging. Later on in the performance, there is a slight shift in focus with each individual taking up time of their own. “Ultimate Insurance” is Hamid Drake’s selected moment in the spotlight, his melodic playing taking up most of the space on the song, before being replaces by the sounds of Walerian’s bass clarinet.
The group’s approach to rhythm is particularly notable. Although drummer Drake keeps some sense of swing or groove in his wheelhouse at all times, the exact meter remains at the back of his mind, never broadcasting itself too obviously. In doing so, the piece is able to drive forward without losing it’s improvisatory nature.
Generally speaking, Walerian remains relatively stagnant. The album places a considerable amount of focus on dynamic musicality, but oftentimes, during particularly exciting moments, Walerian finds himself in a similar places. His licks and chops are obvious, but he doesn’t do much more than add to the hectic nature of the climax. Matthew Shipp reads as a much more versatile musician. The power of his left hand alone is enough to substitute for a bass and his combination of chordal and contrpunctal playing gives the work a lot of texture.
With a live recording album of this nature, it is easy to be enveloped upon first listen, but live concerts often focus more on the crowd in the particular moment rather than the musicality over a long period of time. That being said, the album touches upon a lot of important ideas such as motivic development, dynamics, wide-ranging levels of excitement making for a solid piece of music. It’s lifespan remains undetermined upon first listen.
Deerhoof are a quirky art-rock band with a knack for progressive musical composition with fun, catchy vocals. Their new album The Magic serves as a perfect run-down of their skills nearly 20 years into an aggressively cool indie-rock career. On “Learning to Apologize Effectively,” Deerhoof provide a grungey level of distortion with a hell of a chorus.
Satomi Matsuzaki begins the song with her signature vocal phrasing and abstract lyricism suggesting that “the song is waiting for another song.” Her voice cuts through the band’s soundscape like a knife contrasting the slightly brooding texture with clear high notes. Also the general wackiness that seems to follow the band’s approach to time signature is reflected by the lyrics particularly in the chorus:
“Never say you’re sorry until
Chicken Little shouted at you”
Deerhoof is extraordinarily talented instrumentally. In seeing them live, drummer Greg Saunier showcased his technical playing chops, continuously playing around his cymbols and toms. Also, guitarist Ed Rodriguez convinced the crowd of his wild guitar chops with impressive solos. Despite the capabilities for technically advanced musicality, the group never over-indulges leaving room for fun in their somewhat complex landscape.
The song develops in an extremely mature way giving insight to the band’s long-standing career. The pressing, repetitive high notes continue from beginning to end with the laid back power chords accompanying Matsuzaki’s words. The bridge changes up the chord progression considerably, adding variation to the standard bass. Every change comes so naturally, never sounding like some sort of math equation.
Deerhoof are DIY gods. They’ve been able to maintain such a longstanding career through their art-first mentality and general creativity. Rather than booking up a studio with and producing an epic, symphonic album, 20 years into their career the band booked up an office space to record The Magic singlehandedly. Their resourcefulness and musical prowess is truly astounding and the result is one kick ass album.
Royce Da 5’ 9” checks a lot of boxes on his new album Layers. His flow is powerful and capturing. The beats that surround him are well produced. Royce is a brilliant storyteller, his narratives vividly describing certain events in his life. He also brings a sense of humor, at one point suggesting that he is a Steinway grand piano as opposed to his Casio keyboard friends. Despite all this, it’s hard to say anything on this album came as a surprise. As far as slightly throwback-tinged hip hop albums go, Layers reads as relatively standard and the album seems to stagnate on similar sounding vibes making for an un-memorable collection of tunes.
The album begins with “Tabernacle” a gospel-induced track discussing Royce’s rise from battle rapper to unique artist. This narrative comes with quite the emotional rollercoaster as Royce is driven to the hospital on the night of one of his first shows where his partner is in labor and his grandmother is having a medical emergency. In a particularly personable moment, Royce digresses from his flow to ask his listener if they remember a specific song from a Helter Skelter album. He even sings a bit of the hook an mentions “that was my shit.” “Tabernacle” serves as a perfect lyrical introduction to Royce as he gives insight to his nostalgia, suffering, and up-close and personal style.
Although many of his beats are hard-hitting and fun, they never lead to any well-constructed hooks. Also, Royce’s vocal work doesn’t do him any favors. His chorus on “Hard” borders on the out of tune and it’s not catchy enough to be memorable. This continues for most of the album. Royce continuously struggles to make a convincing refrain, sometimes even ignoring this concept and electing to rap from beginning to end. Considering his lyrical capabilities, this is logical, however, this is part of the reason why the album lacks standout tracks. Even when Royce isn’t making the hooks himself they still come off as stale. On “Shine” and “Misses” overly produced vocal hooks make for a dated sound aesthetic.
When I first listened to Layers I just felt underwhelmed. It’s one of those releases that doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong, however, it just isn’t memorable. Royce’s knack for narration isn’t conveyed well as the album is plagued by poorly constructed hooks.
“After writing a review of the fantastic Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival opening concert featuring the likes of Wadada Leo Smith and Kai Kellough, I was graced with the opportunity to witness a slew of Suoni festival concerts throughout their two week line-up. As usual, Suoni delivered a mind bending take on music. From spoken word to art-punk to free jazz, all things underground seemed to be represented in one way or another. Through and through Montreal was well represented. At the end of the day, the festival is really about this beautiful city we live in so, I thought it would be best to spend some time writing about some of my favorite local acts.”
The review can be viewed here and has reviews of Jean Derome and Joane Hétu, AJ Cornell and Tim Darcy, and Lungbutter.