Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Shaking Hands With The Avant Garde
This collaboration between legendary drummer Steve Reid (who has worked in such varied contexts as Miles Davis' last major recording band on the 'Tutu' album and session sticksman for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) and electronic maverick Kieran Hebden (Four Tet, Fridge) is a mouth watering prospect. Hebden leant some electronic effects to Reid's excellent 'Spirit Walk' album last year, and this album is the result of just one day's session between the two. As the somewhat gushing sleevenotes are pained to point out - this is all live, with no overdubs or retakes. Laptop improvisation can be stiflingly emotionless and sterile - but Reid's inventive drumming, which places the emphasis much more on sound and texture than virtuosic technique, provides much of the human warmth here. It's fascinating to hear an album which is almost entirely devoid of melody, yet sounds so compelling and enticing.
The obvious reference point is the jazz tradition from which Reid comes, and which Hebden so obviously adores - the 'spiritual jazz' model of John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Yusuf Lateef and, especially, Sun Ra. Reid's combinations of atmospheric bells and quietly grooving insistence captures this tradition effortlessly and, for the most part, Hebden has found the sounds to match. The least effective moments come when Hebden seems to use samples of the kind of squawking saxophone you might expect to hear on a late period John Coltrane record - this technique seems a little regressive and obvious. Yet, it's kept to a relative minimum, and particularly on the lengthy final track, the two seem to have found an integration that is instinctive and insightful, Hebden producing some unusual and hypnotic electronic sounds.
Both musicians are brave enough to take their ideas and extrapolate them, and whilst the three lengthy tracks do indeed switch between styles, the rhythms and sounds are given plenty of time to settle and they certainly become transfixing. This will be a completely alien world for those weaned on commercial rock and pop - but it is a world full where intelligent ideas, feel and emotion need not be mutually exclusive.
Then there's 'Drum's Not Dead', the third album from Liars and already one of the most uncompromising and extraordinary albums of 2006. It's not as if this has ever been a band to shirk pretensions or affectations (just look at their penchant for lengthy album titles) but the major transformation they underwent with their last full-length ('They Were Wrong So We Drowned') succeeded in alienating a substantial portion of their fanbase. Still, it was a much more original prospect than their more generic debut and those that stuck with the band will now consider themselves amply rewarded.
'Drum's Not Dead' is an exotic and highly unusual album - a near continuous barrage of sound incorporating primitive, duelling drumming and droning guitar effects. Threading it all together is unfathomably tall singer Angus Andrew's bizarre falsetto, and a concept involving two characters, Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, that I've yet to really get my head around. Still, the last album was all about witches, so that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to the initiated.
Musically, it's not too far away from the noise experiments of early Animal Collective (circa 'Spirit They've Gone...'), but it's less folksy and much denser. Whilst it occasionally achieves passages of eerie calm, much of the album is menacing and uncomfortable. The twin attack of 'A Visit From Drum' and 'Drum Gets A Glimpse' makes for the album's high point, the relentlessly pounding drums beating out some kind of frightening portent. Quite what it's all about is anybody's guess, but it provides a perverse and irrational thrill.