‘Light Never Bright Enough’ documents John Butcher and Keiji Haino’s meeting at London’s Café Oto in a couple of summers ago. I was at that gig – the duo’s first UK collaboration – although my expectations had dipped from their previous levels of giddy excitement to something more pragmatic after an opening solo percussion set by Haino in which ritual seemed to have been supplanted by pretension. Nevertheless, the show was strong, as I remember it – the way in which Butcher’s horn punched periodically through Haino’s amorphous clouds of fuzz hit me with a bracing jolt of the jollies whose aftershock kept me going through several subsequent days. Yet this recording of the date, on Café Oto’s own label, feels slightly underwhelming. I’m not sure why. The recording, courtesy of Luca Consonni, is crystal clear, The players’ contributions are enhanced by Butcher’s sympathetic mix and Guiseppe Ielesi’s excellent mastering. But it takes a good couple of listens to get under the skin of what’s going on.
Haino, in particular, seems resolutely earthbound in a way that he didn’t when I was sat in a sweltering Cafe Oto in back in July 2016. The wiry rattles and waves of aluminum throb that he shakes from his instrument during‘Light Never Bright Enough’s’ first three sections soon lose their invigorating lustre without settling into a durational hypnosis, becoming instead merely decorative. It’s a far cry from the shock and awe jangle of solo records like ‘Next, Let’s Try Changing The Shape’ or the full-metal KO of ‘American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On’, his recent hook-up with Washington/Vancouver sludge heroes SUMAC. There’s a diverting flute and wibbly, Theremin-style intervention in Part IV that broadens the focus, pushing Butcher into florid soprano curlicues as Haino buzzes and splutters. But things only real, guitar-wise, during in the fifth and final part, when Haino unleashes a burst of atonal, screeching distortion, following it up with circling series of plucked notes that wind around like the staircase in an Escher print, coiling Butcher’s brutal parps in a spiky binding.
Butcher is on solid form throughout, throwing all sorts of shapes in the record’s opening stages, as much goading his partner into action as feeling out the territory. It’s busy, sure, but his trademark serrated blasts cut through the distraction with severe and thrilling aspect. Part II sees him grinding out a series of almost jazzy licks, albeit ones that have been deformed under extreme pressure. It’s testament to Butcher’s ability to exploit any cracks and crevices to the fullest intent that he avoids being flattened by Haino’s tinny penumbra, instead opening spaces in which to move things along and avoid general paralysis. It’s most effective towards the end of Part II, after some fervent horn playing from Butcher has ebbed into spittly breath. His hoarse exhalations chase Haino’s reverb-drenched plinks all around the houses like some barely-discernable malevolent spirit, finally manifesting themselves in angular scads of feedbacky drone that jolt Haino into jamming out equivalent stringy shapes. The resultant choreography is somewhere between hifalutin ballet and a bruising prizefighter bout.