Music Reviews



Family Vineyard

First, let me divert your attention to something else.

Jim O’Rourke reissued a good collection of Ray Russell’s guitar playing about three years ago. It’s essentially the Holy Grail of American Free (as in noisy harshness, not Ornette Coleman) Jazz guitar playing. Unless, of course, you count Henry Kaiser, which is, a whole other chapter complete. The reissue liner notes, written by Alan Licht, are somewhat eager to make a comparison to the main Japanese noise jazz guitarist from the period, Masayuki Takayanagi. Russell, of course, was a little more “Rock”, there was a little more pull and sway in the harsh noise he was able to muster on the stand-out track, “Stained Angel Morning”.

Brits, of course, were where Free Improv was really at, in its formative years. You had Derek Bailey with his restricted, distinct palette of abrupt clacks and lingering resonances. Fred Frith, whose work was often, if not more so, as rock-oriented as Russell, but with a good share of bizarre playing techniques to augment it. Keith Rowe, who brought a degree of sensitivity to the gnarly scratches of guitar history. Etc. Those are the big names. The ones any avant-guitarist has to come to grips with, historically.

Of course, there is one other American, you know, in the great historical pantheon, that I left out of the mix, partially due to the fact that his playing is completely devoid of the Jazz aspirations of any of his colleagues. Loren Mazzacane Connors, who releases work on a label alongside the album I’m supposed to be reviewing. Before I do, let me just highly recommend Connors’ work, emphasizing the unique, beautiful, lingering expressions in his playing. So, onto Ian Davis and Jason Bivins’ Benthic.

Benthic is a relatively unsurprising release. Bivins’ guitar style is similar to Russell’s, except for a near-complete lack of mind-blanking violence. It’s frantic, jagged, wah’ed, distorted, recalling a little bit of Frith and Kaiser, at times. But that’s that. It’s myopic, and devoid of anything personal. There is no sense that Bivins’ life is in his playing, there are only the standard noise guitar techniques that even he must be sick of at this point. All of the dissonance chain-linked phrasing just comes across as quirky, as decidedly “avant-garde”. How much Bivins could learn from the quiet lyricism of his labelmate Connors!

Percussionist Ian Davis equally shares the covered territory of gimmicky jarring improv. Yet, he’s been in the business longer, engineered work by the often brilliant Chris Cutler, led the large Micro-East Collective. There’s a reason most of this review has dealt with the brief history of avant-guitar music. Davis’ playing is so absolutely standard, I can hardly come up with a context for it. Nearly 50 years since Andrew Cyrille invented his shard-ridden approach, there have been so many avant-percussionists who just tap away, under the guise of intense interaction with the other player. Yet, on Benthic all we hear is two people who are only able to communicate because they’re speaking Elementary School English.

The website press release describes their playing: “Rhythm is often displaced by a searing meld of space and growing deconstruction”. Besides being bullshit, what the reader can really procure from this information is that Benthic is an album about displaced rhythm. Not about being in love, going for walks, politics, or getting fired, it’s about displaced rhythm. That’s what you can use this album for. Thinking about space and growing deconstruction. What a highlight.

Family Vineyard:

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