Circular breathing is so technically demanding that I understand why saxophonists foreground it whenever they bust it out. After all, you’ve gone to all this effort to learn the technique, so why not make bloody sure that, when the time comes, it gets top billing? Nevertheless, it can all get a bit … performative at times. All that blowing. Parker, Stetson – we get it. You have good lungs. Even the more interesting variants, such as Andrew Bernstein’s recent ‘An Exploded View of Time‘, which transforms airy bluster into billowing, candy-coloured clouds, makes me yearn for something a little less human-centric.
Enter Antoine Chessex. ‘Subjectivation’ sees the Swiss saxophonist, artist and composer smother his playing in a swamp of processing and effects, shattering the familiar man-with-a-horn swagger into resonant shards before sewing them into a pair of oppressive sonic tapestries. Side B, which documents a performance from London in 2015, is the one that triggered my circular breathing meltdown. Chessex threads his buzzing horn lines through hostile, overlapping fields of drones and whirrs, their serpentine shapes fading in and out of earshot like mysterious figures glimpsed only in passing.
There’s no doubt that Chessex has the chops for this. His cascading rasp has a gabbling plenitude that’s quite capable of enveloping us in its gravelly, viscous rush. But he’s also canny enough to suss that the push of air through metal is only one part of his compelling sound world. He’s copped something bigger, a network of sounds in space whose winding paths are governed only by the immutable laws of the universe.
But before you get to that strange and beautiful hallucination, you’ll have experienced the crushing maelstrom that is Side A. Stitching together material from gigs in San Francisco, Berlin, Zurich and London over a four-year period, Chessex creates a total sludge apocalypse, a blanket of corrosive noise that develops from a grinding insectoid monotone into a yowling, all-out wave of distortion. There’s nothing as identifiable as a saxophone here – a result of Chessex feeding his horn through a shitload of stacks and pedals in good old metal guru style – just a churning mass of tangled, seething debris.
Yet, as dank and suffocating as it is, Chessex’s sense of dynamics provides some shape to the inchoate fury. Monochrome power chords are lightened by writhing, atonal screeches. A sudden lull leaves altissimo yelps scrapping with stinging feedback, a fractious gang of vipers getting fucked up on broken glass. The final few minutes go all-out, a full-spectrum industrial lament barfed up by a gargantuan mechanical lizard in the throes of acid reflux. Impressively, aggressively unpleasant.