Guillaume Viltard: Lost Tracks at Dawn (Earshots EAR001)
Kordik Lucas: Brushed and Crushed (Earshots EAR002)
Browne / Thompson / Sanderson: The 1926 Floor Polish Variations (Linear Obsessional)
Ian MacGowan: Windmap (Linear Obsessional)
Four very different approaches to improvisation from two London-based micro-labels, both of whom are relatively recently established but nevertheless are marking out very interesting spaces for their eclectic and growing rosters of artists.
As a label, Earshots has been in operation for only about a year, although it has curated a series of exploratory concerts for a while longer. Its first two releases – on cassette, natch – are cracking blasts of improv and well worth grabbing.
Released quite a while back now – I think it may have been in March? – Earshots’ debut release, Lost Tracks at Dawn sees bassist Guillaume Viltard getting down and dirty with his instrument in three lengthy pieces.
If you’ve ever see Viltard play, you’ll have an idea of what’s going on here. Although capable of great subtlety and delicacy, he is also an overwhelmingly physical player.
A while back I caught him playing as part of a free jazz quartet led by Steve Noble, and pummelled and strummed and bowed with an astonishing fluidity and force, locking in easily with Noble’s polyrhythmic avalanche and refusing to be cowed by the other players in the quartet, Seymour Wright and Ian McLachlan.
You get both sides of Viltard’s playing in Lost Tracks at Dawn. Check out the spiralling swathes of arco about five minutes into Part 1 or the lurching bowed dissonance halfway through Part 3 for great examples of how get pretty far out while playing with cold grace.
For a contrast, take a listen to the crescendo of Part 2, creaking and flailing with a kind of mute fury which is all the more powerful for coming right on the tail of an almost silent section, or the howling yelps of seven minutes into Part 1, like some feral pack of hounds crying into the night, which quickly transforms into a succession of noisy plucks and clatters.
The overwhelming impression I get from this tape is of a player engaged in an almost sculptural activity, shaping clay or sawing wood, an activity that requires physical exertion, yes, but one that results in something of great and strange beauty.
If Viltard’s work recalls a very human-centred creative activity, Earshots’ sophomore release, by label maestros Edward Lucas and Daniel Kordik, is something much more mysterious. The duo – Lucas on trombone and Kordik on synths – conjure up vast structures that loom up out of the murk, muddy swathes of sound that are criss-crossed with itchy, writhing movement.
Listening to Brushed and Crushed is like coming across some huge ancient temple in the jungle at twilight. The architecture can’t possibly be human, and what are those creatures crawling over its crumbling terraces?
Kordik and Lucas achieve this singular aesthetic in part by combining the new and familiar. Lucas’ trombone hisses and blarts will be familiar to anyone versed in extended techniques, true, but when they’re mixed with Kordik’s electronic soundscapes, they sound utterly new.
Listen to the strangled parps and muted cries on Hector, for example, and tell me you don’t get visions of mutant hyenas crunching on the bones of astronauts.
Kordik’s electronics are pretty weird too. At least some of them seem to work by Theremin-style hand control, which results in a different type of sound than if he were playing either with a keyboard or a modular-style patch.
The characteristic sound seems to be a nightmarish shimmer, ghastly and echoing, as in Antra’s creaking wheeze, which fills the tracks with an eldritch dread. The crashing echoes at the start of Bees are another good example. They’re like a huge club smashing scrap metal to smithereens, which soon merge with Lucas’s trombones into a whirling electronic vortex.
There are wheezing drones too on The 1926 Floor Polish Variations, a new trio of Richard Sanderson, Mark Browne and Daniel Thompson, issued on Sanderson’s own Linear Obsessional label. This time, however, the drones are from Sanderson’s melodeon, which casts icy, ancient-sounding whisps through the five tracks on offer.
The configuration is perhaps the closest to classic European free improvisation of the four releases under discussion here, and so there are scrabbles and scratches enough – notably on Hole in the Floor – for any AMM or Incus records aficionado. But there’s more here than that.
The tracks have a stately grace that recalls the chamber improv of Sanderson’s other combo, The Horse Trio, although the trickster-like figure of Mark Browne brings a more disruptive presence to proceedings, with a variety of bangs and squawks bursting through the frosty surface at opportune moments.
I’m a big fan of Browne’s work, and, as well as astringent horn playing on pieces like The Nearest Emergency Phone, he gets to deploy all manner of gubbins to add surreal sonic juxtapositions and abrasive textures to the tracks.
On The Right Foot in the Door, he follows an almost hysterical percussive sequence with what sounds like duck or game calls, which sounds like a group of children brandishing maracas while chasing a herd of penguins around an ice floe.
Thompson, for his part, unfurls a series of brittle guitar clusters, which add a welcome sense of frailty to the tracks. They creep and crawl around the drones and scrapes, spreading like frost into the joints and cracks of the other two’s playing. It all makes for a rewarding and enriching work.
Finally, we come full circle with Windmap, another set of solo improvisations, this time on trumpet and flugelhorn from Ian MacGowan.
But where Viltard’s bass throbs were physical, these are ethereal, cloud-like wriggle and explorations, seemingly full of Brownian motion as they skip and float in the air.
There’s a nod to jazz for sure here, with some of the more breathy melodies, with tracks like Zonda and Sundowner resembling the modal less-is-more Miles Davis vibe that we all love.
MacGowan stops short of anything too stylishly derivative though, veering into a parched, abstract technique on pieces such Squamish and Libeccio that are beautiful in their simplicity and purity.
It is perhaps rewarding to listen to these short, focused pieces, recorded at MacGowan’s home, as components of a whole, a single organic exploration that seems to spiral ever upwards towards ionosphere (the album is title Windmap, after all) before dispersing, like a dandelion clock, blown away on the breeze, ready to sprout into life again in an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth.
Get ’em here: