In the wake of the brilliant and ferocious Extra Life, composer Charlie Looker's attentions have turned to two new acts, the "depth metal" Psalm Zero and the (superficially) gentler Seaven Teares, whose recorded debut, "Power Ballads," recently dropped via Northern Spy. To some degree, Seaven Teares is a further distillation of some of the early-music ideals behind the Extra Life canon, and I think most fans of Extra Life will find much to like here, but there's something even darker happening in the folds of "Power Ballads."
It's probably worth addressing the John Dowland influence on this music first: the band's name references Dowland's "Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares," a set of compositions published in 1604. The Lachrimae themselves are instrumental variations on his lute song "Flow My Tears," an arrangement of which is found on this record. In his time, Dowland's tunes were quite popular, and though his lyrics tend toward the darker side of existence--loss, loneliness, sadness, etc--those kinds of subjects are so intensely universal, they never go out of style. And I think it's worth noting that much of Dowland's work was intended as dance music in the Renaissance era, particularly the slow, deliberate, melancholy vibes of the pavane. The pavane is a basse danse, where your feet are dragging across the floor, as opposed to an uptempo ho-down kind of vibe, and collectively the scene around Dowland's work seems kind of like a protogoth spectacle, where I'm sure the somber dirges of Bauhaus would have been a welcome jam if they'd had kerosene powered 8-tracks tricking out horse-drawn carriages of the day.
The orchestration for Looker's Seaven Teares project allows for an aural palette that can be relatively faithful to Dowland's music: guitar and voices dominate, percussion is generally delicate and stays out of the way, and recorders make frequent appearances. Added to the textures of early music, the droning atmospheric potential of the harmonium and simple sinewave-y synth tones sound perfectly at home here, and modern lute badass Jozef Van Wissem makes an appearance on a cover of "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains (more on that later). Like Dowland, the music of Seaven Teares draws heavily from the folk tradition, drawing from deep universal themes with a kind of direct simplicity--the more metrically complex moments of Extra Life are mostly gone in this music, replaced with an unambiguous focus on the music and the lyrics. And the recording itself sounds like it was captured mostly live, with some requisite room-reverb-mud and distortion in the mix adding to the somber vibes of the songs.
But I don't think Seaven Teares intends for this music to be taken medicinally as some kind of high-art history lesson. Dowland is part of the context, but most of these songs focus on issues that are as acutely moving today as any era. It's just interesting to note how much of the human experience stays relevant to people of any era, that we've all struggled with similar forms of despair well before the collective shift of our eyes downward into a fragmented abyss of touchscreen telephones.
The "universal feel" in the sound of Seaven Teares is greatly enhanced by dual lead vocals throughout the album: mostly relinquishing the lead singer role in this band, Looker is joined on most tunes by the voice of Amirtha Kidambi. In various configurations of singing in unison, harmonizing, or trading verses, the male/female co-vocal approach gives this music more gender inclusiveness than the often-masculine vibes of Extra Life. Charlie takes over vocals on a few noteworthy occasions, though, including the disturbing tale found in "Like Your Black Hair."
For Extra Life fans, your favorite jam on "Power Ballads" is going to be "Our Lady of Sound." Synths are more dominant here, with a sound approaching "Ripped Heart"-era Extra Life. The drums, devoid of cymbal work, have an almost country feel on this tune, and it's easily the most uptempo number found here. And the album closer actually IS an Extra Life tune: the acoustic/vocal number "Thin Veil" previously heard on the Nat Baldwin/Extra Life split LP from 2008 is recast here with recorder countermelodies and harmonium drones, heavy on unison vocals and performed at a gloomy fraction of the tempo of the original.
Perhaps the most capital-c confounding moment on the album for me is the cover of "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains. It's slowed down to about a quarter of its original tempo, the relentless vibes of the original turned into a funereal dirge. The 7/8 time of the original gets lost at this speed, instead taking on a triple meter feel on every chromatic shift of pitches in the verses. And the choruses are gentle, careful, "so alone." This weirded me the fuck out at first, remembering the acute punishment of the original and thinking of the songs creepy prescience toward Layne Stayley's early death, but after a while of swaying in its slow breeze of despair, I can vibe on it.
The packaging on this album deserves a special mention: the cover and inner jacket reproduce three paintings by Dawn Frasch, full of baroque gore rendered with a lot of purples and pinks. Like the music of Seaven Teares, Frasch's art picks up on the underpinnings of death and darkness found in a lot of Renaissance art, and amps up the gore and despair to fully occupy the painfully large voids opened into our culture by Faces of Death, or Jerry Springer, or whatever modern equivalent of the Roman Colosseum you prefer. "Power Ballads" gets darker than I generally prefer to linger, but I'm glad this band can face Gehenna without flinching.
--also published at Killed In Cars
Last year, I covered a couple of excellent albums featuring Joe Moffett which you can read here--he's one of my favorite trumpet players of the last few years. His work is always very listenable, with powerful tone, a great melodic sensibility, and he can move between the idioms of jazz and lowercase improv with confidence. Here's a couple of albums featuring him as leader or co-leader, showing an even wider range of his musical skills.
Joe Moffett's Ad Faunum
Poland's esteemed Not Two Records brings us this Moffett-led quintet that explores a wide spectrum of free improvisation approaches. Compared to the "Strange Falls" record I reviewed last year, Ad Faunum stays closer to what I think of as "jazz" vocabulary, with more emphasis on exchanging phrases and less reliance on extended technique/sound exploration. That said, this album mostly eludes traditional interpretations of melody/harmony, opting instead for melodic passages evoking what Moffett calls "an almost ritualistic praise of animals" in the liner notes. I can vibe on that concept for sure: if you compare the interplay between musicians to watching animals exchanging sounds and clearly communicating their intentions, even if you don't understand what's happening word by word, you can easily get into the spirit of these improvisations. You don't need to know the "words" to follow the conversation.
Like most improv albums, this music makes the most of rich contrasts: loud versus quiet, fast versus slow, staccato against legato, textural against more melodic passages, long tones against quick flutters, etc. But like the best of improv albums, Moffett has put together an amazingly tight group whose collective improvisations frequently sound composed. Each member commits to deeper forms of listening, supporting and teasing the music ahead in the moment as one would expect, but also thinking on a larger motivic time scale that brings distinction and real communication into every piece.
There's a bit of Joe Maneri's microtonal approach here, but like the microtones of the Psychotic Quartet I reviewed a while ago, they're generally offered in the service of playing more in tune, building consonance-in-the-monent and aspiring to pre-equal temperament vibes, rather than some kind of extension of atonalism into even more potential fragments. Maneri's system itself is quite regimented, at least in theory, into 72 equal divisions of the octave, though both Maneri and Ad Faunum draw from the system more intuitively as they play. One hears the influence of microtones best in slower ensemble sections, where the combined tones of each player shift gently into ever more precise declarations of the perfect note(s) to draw every phrase in perfect detail. But microtonal thinking works its way into solo sections, too. Take Noah Kaplan's tenor solo toward the end of "Riding the Pegasus Down," for example: supported only by the double bass of Jacob William, Kaplan teases out slow phrases, carefully lipping notes up and down just between the "expected" notes, teasing out more natural overtones with overblowing and just a touch of multiphonic work.
Luther Gray's drum work on this recording is generally sparse, adding textural elements and working to subtly delineate phrases coming from the horns. That said, he lays down some serious grooves when the time is right in energetic tracks like the almost post-bop "Matador," which also features super-busy twin bass attacks and rapid-fire exchanges of short phrases between Moffett and Kaplan. As one might expect, with 2 bass players in this lineup (Giacomo Merega on electric bass and Williams on double bass), they combine to take on a particularly visible role in the rhythm section, providing equal parts countermelody and propulsion throughout the record.
To mention a few highlights, the patient development of ideas in "The Other Species" feels like the spiritual center of the album. Starting with some compelling microtonal solo tenor passages, everyone gets a chance to make a statement here, both alone and in various duet and trio configurations, with lots of cymbal work, delicately bowed double bass, and occasionally almost electroacoustic-feeling electric bass providing subtle shifts in foundational textures between solo features. And the unsung hero of this Ad Faunum session must be Giacomo Merega, whose approach to the low end changes dramatically to best articulate every shift in the ensemble. From his delicate harmonics in "The Other Species" that develop into a chord-rich solo moment, to the all-out fuzz bass heroics that build dense walls of distorted glory throughout "Dove Tail,"Merega can both support calm sections with grace and lead the group into its most aggressive moments.
Twins of El Dorado - [portend the end]
On the opposite end of the improv/composition spectrum, the Twins of El Dorado, whose debut recording recently came out via Prom Night Records, is a highly composed duo album of playful intertwined lines. Moffett's trumpet is joined by the vocals of Kristin Slipp (Art Bears Songbook, Cuddle Magic) for a real workout that remains highly melodic, evoking a diverse set of classical and pop idioms. Some pieces, like "I Will [Not Set an Emily Dickinson Poem to Music]" alternate between spoken word delivery and shifting harmonies that imply medieval motet writing. Other pieces, like the "Pond Long Song" that follows, have a contemporary art song feel, full of rhythmically complex, chromatically twisting unison lines and harmonic clusters right at home in 20th C. classical melodies.
Slipp and Moffett use a wide dynamic range throughout these pieces, but I'm amazed by just how much air they move when things get intense. Slipp has insanely great control of her voice, pulling off hundreds of wide intervalic leaps and outlining weird chords with flawless intonation. There are very few vocalists whose sense of pitch is good enough to dominate so effortlessly in this kind of duo format, tossing hocketed arpeggios between voice and trumpet, overlaying serpentine chromatic passages around one another, and reaching to stratospheric ranges in pieces like "Fare Thee" (one of the few pieces not written entirely by the duo). And neither musician hides behind a wall of vibrato--a lot of these pieces use a noticeably wide vibrato approach only for emphasis, or to evoke a quasi-operatic idiom in appropriate moments (or bugle-call moments on trumpet).
Moffett's beautiful, clear tone is on full display throughout the album as well. It's a pleasure to hear someone whose work I mostly know through improvisation delivering written passages so deeply. While these pieces don't have a lot of high density notes-per-minute firepower from a soloist perspective, they're quite virtuosic in terms of the precise intonation and rhythmic precision they require to sound so strong. There's nowhere to hide in a duet, but these Twins can handle the pressure.
I really like this album, and I've also been finding that my friends and family who aren't normally into the "weird" stuff I like really enjoy this, too. Every time I play this album, someone invariably asks me what it is and wants to know more about it. It's playful and fun and wild in all of the right places, and even if you try to put in on quietly in the background, it demands full attention and a volume increase every time. Get in on this, folks.
--also published at Killed in Cars