There must be some way to deploy the hypotheses of multiple universes and bendy space-time to justify my feeling that, however long ago a free improv cassette was released, NOW is always the optimum time to write a caffeinated chunk of blather about it. No matter that my knowledge of advanced physics stops at GCSE level (well, not even that – when I scraped my way through the subject it was still an O-level, sonny). Let’s just say that playing this tape of cranky jamming by Manchester’s David Birchall and Dutch drummer Rogier Smal, released more than a year ago on Luke Poot’s label, feels right.
Birchall’s distinctively scrunchy axe tone is on point for my current vibe on this cold September evening. It’s the sonic equivalent of jamming a bar of honeycomb candy (not real honeycomb, the brittle stuff that’s makes up 90% of a Crunchie bar and which you can buy huge bags on Clacton pier and other similar institutions) into your mouth and exerting massive jaw pressure to splinter it into deliciously sweet splinters.
Most of the time here Birchall’s not really playing anything you’d recognise as coming from a guitar – no chords, not many notes, etc. Instead, he’s laying down scarred, syncopated blasts of noise that implant themselves into your frontal lobes and immediately start an abrasive action upon the fatty tissue therein.
Occasionally, the grunge appears as a looming sonic shadow, almost like a monstrous roar, before it dies back to a wiry, rusty grind. These sounds, the most un-guitarry of all the un-guitarry sounds that he makes on this tape, may emanate from the tapes and electronics he uses to augment his playing.
Smal is a good sparring partner for all this, raining down thunderous clusters of tom-tom thuds and spraying asymmetric snare and hi-hat riffs all over Birchall’s angular fuzz. His sense of timing is pretty impeccable, pulling back into almost silence after aggressive, extended snare licks and alternating bruising percussion interventions with delicate, cotton wool patters.
There’s plenty going on here, even when it seems like there isn’t. It’s a free improv truism, sure – that the listening is as important as the playing, the silence as important as the noise – but it’s still good to hear players who have those good behaviours embedded in their practice. Sometimes that quietness is rewarding for its own sake, as sonically rich as the hectic exchanges preceding it. At others, it is like the tide going out, a temporary retreat from a battered land, before the next onslaught.