VERTEX – Thanos Chrysakis, Oli Mayne, Jerry Wigens, Zsolt Sőrés a.k.a Ahad

06/07/2011

VERTEX on Aural Terrains 

Thanos Chrysakis, Oli Mayne, Jerry Wigens, Zsolt Sőrés a.k.a Ahad

Duration 56.36 | Released May 2011

This album is yet another excellent addition to my cd library. What we have here is a series of full-on free improvisations using a remarkable range and variety of sound sources. As is often the case the ‘electronics’ are unspecified which is a pity because, given that the larger share of listeners to this type of material will be the ‘converted’, it wouldn’t be too nerdy to let us know what electronics are at work.

The attention to design and a dash of originality in the artwork is evident, as always with an Aural Terrains release.

In my personal universe of music and musical opinions, with all the multiple odious comparisons and analogies, one thought dominates – that there will never be a unified theory of contemporary music. At one end of the spectrum we have the big bang, exemplified by embarrassing nonsense like U2, much heat, some light, lots of random energy, so close yet so tantalisingly far from Godhead. Then we have the fascinating teeming infinity of ever smaller energy particles (with even odder names) one of the most interesting and unpredictable being the world of contemporary free improvisation. A stretched analogy, but it works for me, and never shall the two worlds meet.

We have four tracks from a fine team of seasoned players:-

Vertex 1 begins as a pointillistic crickety tapestry over a high frequency pedal. In the mix I can hear some distorted circuitry of the kind I’ve dabbled with myself, perhaps made from simple oscillators, whose amplitude and other modulations are highly animated and dynamic.

The electric guitar begins to assert itself, to my ears, as a lead instrument with backing. Somewhere in there lies the success of the electric guitar, in particular played fairly dry and clean. This requires some measure of ‘facing up to’ as certain stylistic elements in the playing here might be read, in the context of the other instrumentation, as too referential (especially for guitarists) and very much in the shadow of Derek Bailey. Being fretted, the guitar is all too 12-tone equal temperament. This isn’t to say he can’t play the thing, he most certainly can, and amazingly well at that. His style is candid, direct and captivating. Some phrases merge beautifully with other players’ gestures. Personally, I’m not too fond of the dry bland tone, but it’s better than a recognisable distorted or chorused sound. One bonus – he isn’t Fennesz, or an imitator, so I don’t risk any diabetic or premature ejaculation problems… and please remember that these are only first impressions.

Things settle at points into some wonderful acousmatic passages, just on the cusp of recognisability, one of the strengths of group work like this – where (as it implies on the tin) you are taken to completely new and wonderful aural terrains.

As we proceed the guitar tips into a free jazz idiom, reminding me of Scofield and Frisell at points, not a bad thing, though perhaps overplayed. This is counterbalanced by a fantastic tapestry of shifting foreground/background and some truly meaningful interplay, in the sense of a solid and tight contemporary jazz ensemble.

A fine sense of pace and drama becomes evident as the piece unfolds – we begin to witness personal and collective narratives unveiling themselves. The vibraphone is very welcome – I would have gratefully welcomed its ‘glue’ and shimmer earlier, as I would some glue from passages of silence (note to self – remember to copyright the phrase ‘silence is my glue’ for future use).

We come in to land as all comes to rest, except for the guitarist who has the musical nouse to steer us home very tastefully by gracing us with some light harmonics.

Vertex 2 begins with the guitar harmonics we left in Vertex 1. Some great percussive and electronic gestures emerge, some determinate, others less so. Particular elements of guitar technique become more recognisable – the use of the tremelo arm for example. The introduction of distorted sounds take me to a more filmic space, perhaps a scene from a country noir movie where the redneck psycho decides that it’s time for payback. It’s great stuff really. Some low frequency squarewaves and noise ramp up the intensity. There seems to be some evidence of profound listening going on between the players, for example where a good strong electronic dronal background is established for the guitar to play against. The colour, excitement, suspense and drama of this excellent track makes it sound composed at times – someone needs to make the movie. The guitar has a tighter focus, is much more restricted (though still free enough). Bear in mind that to the unaccustomed listener we’re still talking about absolute mayhem here! A predictable modulated square wave drops the energy levels a little; this comes over as a clichéd sound, especially when foregrounded, and would possibly be more effective as a point intrusion. We are treated to a vocal sample or two, exquisitely placed in the mix. The viola bowscrapes which come along later seem to echo the square wave timbre in some way. To my ears the music loses its way towards the end, or maybe goes on a bit too long, in particular after such effective tension in the first two thirds. A poor cat finds itself being strangled over some free chordal vamping on guitar – very sweet. Then lovely vibes at the end which again make me ask why we can’t have more of this – it’s such a versatile instrument.

Vertex 3 opens with the vibes. This could be a twisted lounge jazz ensemble in rehearsal with some diy painting and decorating (using steam scrapers) under way at the bar. One could create a new genre of literature to describe this stuff.

Another poor innocent creature seems to be undergoing ‘extraordinary rendition’ involving a drill of some sort – oh it’s a clarinet, then a viola – very good indeed. This harks back to a trend in Aural Terrain’s releases which favours improvisation on acoustic instruments. On that point it is amazing just what an instrument can conjur up. Take the clarinet – all sorts of connotations and narratives there. Then we are treated to hints of free jazz, objects being activated, struck and caressed. At this point, the way I’m reading this complex album and trying to rationalise it in some way, is that we have patterns emerging – one of those patterns being a predominant use of acoustic instruments with electronic/percussive object-based backing.

There follows some very sensitive and clever interplay, evidence of exploring timbral montages and trying to move the spectrum morphologically, live/in real time, which is quite an achievement in my opinion and transcends the gestural free-for-all approach often found elsewhere.

The pace, the change of tack are excellent. Some sounds are just that tad bland and hackneyed but then there’s so much variety that this doesn’t take away too much from the quality of the listening experience. This might sound a bit odd and random, but I would love to hear this ensemble behind the screen at a puppetry or shadow puppetry performance (don’t underestimate this art form).

We end with sirens, clarinet and percussion. I even detected shades of new complexity; Birtwistle also came to mind.

With Vertex 4 we have another free jazz introduction, soon dominated by guitar, again Bailey-esque at times but with enough distinctiveness to stand out as a clear original voice, at last. Can you talk of a free improvising guitarist having a style? Well, Jerry Wigens certainly has – it grows on you. The call and response passages are sharp and tight, we have some wonderful interplay between guitar and vibraphone, then a deeply introspective passage unfolds. Can we have more of this please?

Next more stasis, repetition and ‘musical’ (in a conventional sense) development: recognisable chords and a measure of metrical stability. This more orthodox syntax, an interesting departure, offers ambivalent readings – ‘we can do this’, or perhaps we’ve reached the point of communal desire to settle down for a spell, because it is a settling down, this snuggling into recognisable idiomatic cushions. The straight into a shade too much self indulgence from guitar. As one myself, I know only too well that guitarists can get locked into something that’s interesting for them but perhaps less so for the listener. But then not everyone will hear it like me. I would say though that it’s miles better than some of the bottled sh*te that passes for free improvisation which I’ve had to endure in the past (and I too have a criminal record in this respect).

If someone asked me to point them to new music I’d unapologetically direct them to this sort of thing because it is inventive, playful, often inscrutable, seemingly random (but not) – the list goes on. I wish I had musicians like this living near me. As a solo improviser it can be challenging to render the ideas inside your head with limited means. Here we have that phenomenon where a string quartet can sound like an orchestra – at times you’d never know there were only four of them.

Finally, buy this album, because it’s a gem of a work – repeat listenings will bring unique rewards: deft interplay, timbral clashes, a superior investigation of chance versus design.

…next up – the unreasonable acoustic antics of Tapemeister Rinus…

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