Tim Hecker-Konoyo: Album Review

There’s a variety of reactions to ambient music.  A genre that values waltzing around in a beautifully detailed but static–and of course, meterless–place, sometimes listening to an album can take its inhabitants on a emotional journey and other times the effect is more singular as if the listener has been staring at the same painting for an hour.  Crafting an especially textured landscape, Tim Hecker’s Konoyo feels like a group of lines coalescing to a center that doesn’t exist.  The bowels of Hecker’s deep, electronically crafted bass sounds swirl against dancing, high strings from the work of Japan’s Konoyo ensemble, all seemingly swept up into the fog of Hecker’s higher frequency electronic sounds.  The work is breathtaking and emotionally charged in it’s melodic choices, perhaps not making its fans into different people, but validating the ebb and flow of their introspection.

Now, of course this album has a more nuanced roadmap than say “The Disintegration Loops.”  The communication between Hecker and the rest of the ensemble is quite varied despite also achieving a somewhat singular emotive collage throughout.  We hear swells of Hecker’s bass sound accompanied by gestures from the instrumentalists at the very beginning and the two simultaneously increase and decrease their intensity throughout This Life, making for a natural, breathing effect.  The two musical forces are not joined at the hip for the whole album of course, there’s places where Hecker is alone, supplying a heave of electronic lights, and elsewhere the ensemble is left to its own devices.  Inflected with drums, the group can supply plenty of noise to stand on their own and particularly towards the tail end of In Mother Earth Phase, it’s as if the group is creating the sound of the beginning of the work acoustically.

As we continue to move into a new era in Hecker–one in which the synth mastermind scavenges the diverse world of instrumental world music to find new sounds to synthesize in his vision–we see how willing the composer is to adapt without losing his voice.  Konoyo is a new color for the musician to explore but even as his imprint shifts in and out of focus, the album maintains all of the qualities that make his work so capturing and forward thinking.

-Donovan Burtan


Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples.  By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.

“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes.  First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects.  Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.

This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment.  Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me.  It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.

The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space.  “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie.  It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar.  Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached.  It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.

“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace.  The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies.  This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record.  It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.

Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances.  When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona.  Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.

AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album.  Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work.  Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting.  I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.

-Donovan Burtan


2016 Review: Top 20 List (11-20)

11. Angel Olsen-My Woman

A masterful rock album about keeping hold of yourself through struggles with relationships.

Further Reading

12. David Bowie-Blackstar

 Bowie’s final number.

Further Reading

13. The Range-Potential

A sample-based wonder that perfectly captures the anxiety of youth.

Further Reading

14. Steve Lehman-Selebeyone

A jazz/hip-hop album that balances both idioms effortlessly.

Further Reading

15. Mary Halvorson-Away With You

Halvorson’s chamber jazz compositional talents on full display to contrast last year’s solo effort.

Further Reading

16. Xarah Dion-Fugitive

Xarah Dion turns up the heat with heavy, punchy tunes.

17. Bobby Kapp and Matthew Shipp-Cactus

Masters of jazz duet in a place deeply rooted in jazz but void of limits.

Further Reading

18. A Tribe Called Red-We Are the Halluci Nation

Tribe Called Red return with their best songwriting effort to date.

Further Reading

19. A Tribe Called Quest-We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Tribe Called Quest honor Phife Dawg and remind us how important their sound is to the contemporary music ethos.

Further Reading

20. Tim Darcy and AJ Cornell-Too Significant to Ignore

Tim Darcy’s ought lyricism gets displaced in a sonic vacuum supplied by sound artist AJ Cornell.

Further Reading

Too Significant to Ignore AJ Cornell+Tim Darcy

We’ve always known Tim Darcy had a way with words.  Last year he stunned us with the line “I’m no longer afraid to die cause that is all that I have left” from the song “Beautiful Blue Sky” on Ought’sSun Coming Down.  The band’s first album More than Any Other Dayalso had its brilliant lyrical moments; “today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make a decision between 2% and whole milk” said Darcy in a particularly ironic discussion of his grocery shopping.  With the help of electronic musician AJ Cornell, Darcy’s lyrical talent and vocal delivery have been put in a vacuum.  Gone are the erratic rhythms and bass lines he’s usually featured beside.  Gone is Darcy’s guitar centered songwriting style and vocal hooks.  Replacing the usual Ought set-up is AJ Cornell’s eerie avant-garde electronic backdrop, which has brought a whole new personality out of Darcy resulting in the album Too Significant To Ignore.

AJ Cornell makes music an experience.  On her song Vertige Suspendu, droning synths are periodically met with textural sounds, enveloping the listener in a brooding aesthetic.  Another song of hers,InonouonInoutonin, Acra, is based more on pops, clicks, and vocal sampling.  Throughout her discography, she has developed a brilliant knack for capturing listeners without the sing-able choruses and melodies indicative of Darcy’s past.  It is clear that Darcy respects this talent as he leaves huge chunks of time for Cornell to work her magic.  The last minute or so of Cosmetic Sadness bleeds into Automatic Ecstasy where Cornell is left alone for an entire piece.  Her contrasting bass lines gain momentum into more distorted territory with static frequencies creeping into the picture.  A wall of sound is slowly amassed around the simple start with new sounds pulsating left and right like waves.  On “This Café,” Cornell’s urgent keyboard part is met with electronic snapping.  The second half of the album begins with the rhythmic bass line of “The Space Between Everything,” which is contrasted by the panning, high-frequency keyboard sounds.  The album ends with “Phosphere.”  Air blowing in the distance transitions into symphonic electronic sounds sustaining beautifully into oblivion.  Again Darcy is absent and again the listener is mesmerized.  The sonic design of the album is perfectly balanced with Cornell displaying many different technics culminating in a diverse, avant-garde musical pallet that never becomes stale or lingers on the insignificant.

Cornell’s sonic landscaping techniques run deeper than her performance.  For instance, Darcy’s vocal phrasing operates in a similar fashion to the sounds that surround him.  His voice remains relatively monotone gaining energy into the end of each piece.  The words on “Today, The body” begin methodically with Darcy uttering lines about the state of the body and mind.  The mind is then brought into question with more obscure lines about the absence of bacteria and Darcy’s tendency to “eat off the floor.”  The piece climaxes when Darcy brings up the term rapture, first ironically “not to be confused with drinking too much coffee” then packing a bit more punch “like throwing a slack line of rope with a loop tied in the end of it and dragging whatever it is back towards you.”  As each line is said the energy builds, electronic sounds crackle and screech as Darcy’s words pick up pace, echoing into both sides of the speaker.  Just as Cornell makes her music interesting with the absence of beats and scale, Darcy is confined to spoken word.  Having more experience with this type of artistic limitation, Cornell takes the lead with Darcy vocalizing her concept of musical energy.

The abstract nature of Cornell’s sonic effort is also reflected by Darcy’s lyrical ideas.  The words never deliver a cohesive story or singular idea.  Rather, Darcy values emotional affect and thought provoking themes in his poetic language.  On “This Café (Is Not Anonymous Enough)” Darcy puts himself in a Café where a man yells “Give me those headphones I want to hear god,” a rattling assertion that matches the shocking sound elements.  Alone this line provides a slight criticism of modern day society where people are walking around constantly ignoring the world with their earbuds.  Also, a connection is drawn here to an earlier part of the song where Darcy vividly describes two men in a guided museum tour “looking up at… an image of Christ…hearing all about it wearing headphones.”  The headphones are used to “hear” god by describing the significance of the work of art.  Darcy alludes to a juxtaposition of mundane, everyday objects against the significance of god.  He also may be suggesting that the way people blindly followed god and religion in the past is similar to the mind numbing effect of laptops, headphones, and cafés in modern day cities.  These lines can be drawn into the first song with Darcy’s line about rapture and coffee.  Darcy has to specify that the joy of god is not the same thing as drinking a bit too much caffeine, which ties into his analysis of modern day vices and brainwashing.  By emphasizing themes in this non-linear storyline fashion, Darcy has embodied the abstract nature of the sounds that surround him.

I just love this album.  It’s perfectly unique in its achievement of spoken word and avant-garde, electronic sound art.  The lyrics find humor and thought provoking analysis of modern day life.  The sounds bring you in with their subtlety then shock your ears with their explosive tendencies.  Perhaps most important is the natural feel of the album.  Neither artist is forcing anything, almost like a Pollok painting.  Pollock’s paint spills on the page not tied down to any sense of realism yet there’s something incredible about it, something pure in the emotional impact the work has.  AJ Cornell and Tim Darcy make a perfect team naturally navigating a 40 minute album with a Pollock level of natural artistic talent making for a truly incredible experience.

-Donovan Burtan

originally published here on March 24th, 2016