Dean Roberts/Werner Dafeldecker - Aluminium
Günter Müller/Lê Quan Ninh - La Voyelle Liquide
Otomo Yoshihide/Voice Crack - Bits, Bots, and Signs
Thomas Lehn/Marcus Schmickler - Bart
Scarcely two years since its inception, Jon Abbey's Erstwhile Records is now at the sharpest point of improvised music's cutting edge. Erstwhile is about imaginative collaborations between established and predominantly electro-acoustic improvisers produced to the very highest standards. The current catalogue of twelve recordings seems nearly flawless, and with more attractive projects slated for release later in the year, the buzz should soon be heard and felt. The four most recent Erstwhile releases amply demonstrate the labels many qualities and the diversity of the music within its scope.
Austrian musician Werner Dafeldecker is known principally for his pivotal role in the group Polwechsel. On 'Aluminium' however he eschews the familiar guise of bassist and (rather chamberish) composer and improviser, playing guitar and electronics in the spirit of AMM. Joining him is New Zealand born guitarist Dean Roberts, whose own release 'And the Black Moths Play the Grand Cinema' (Ritornell) is one of my favourite releases of the new century. 'Aluminium' is the perfect title for music as smoothly polished and with such a lustrous sheen as this. Guitar generated sounds evoke gongs and tolling bells, and are offset by unsettling scrapes and piercing sine-tones. The music has an almost liquid flow, and the gestures of Roberts and Dafeldecker are refreshingly spare. Track titles are rather bizarrely 'Rock And Roll parts 4 and 5', perhaps a joke at the expense of Roberts' background in rock music ( with Thela). 'Aluminium' may not be a heavy metal, but it is welcome evidence that the post-Sonic Youth generation of cross-over improvisers are finding their feet and delivering sounds that refresh, beguile and delight where others flirt with staleness.
More than a percussion duet, 'La Voyelle Liquide' is an electronic transformation. Taking percussion as source material, weaving in live-electronics and building into an impressive soundscape (as distinctive in its way as that of Roberts and Dafeldecker), 'La Voyelle Liquide' is truly a meeting of like minds. Mčller's own record label (For 4 Ears) occupies a similar niche to Erstwhile and is the home of LÉ Quan's astonishing solo disc 'Ustensiles'. That mutual awareness not surprisingly leads the two percussionists to work extremely well together. Control is what makes this such an impressive recording - both players know how and when to use the sounds which best serve the growth and shape of their music, happy to let silence speak when gestures may be futile. The electronic manipulations, rather than obscuring the origin of their sounds, establish a sub-aquatic quality which transports the listener to another place. Sometimes resembling the electronica of Oval or Microstoria (but slowed down to a crawl), this is far reaching and highly untraditional percussion music which looks unblinkingly at the future.
Anybody catching the recent CMN 'Japanorama' tour (curated by Otomo) will have been left in little doubt that Japanese improv is healthily enriching the music as it gains increasing exposure. An obsession with extremes - of pitch, volume, attack, timbre - seems to be characteristic. Otomo's own career to date has itself seen a fair amount of oscillation between extremes. Starting in free-jazz, moving to brutal avant-rock and noise (Ground Zero), Yoshihide currently occupies decidedly more minimalist ground. Playing mainly turntables (minus records) and electronic wave generators, his asceticism recalls occasional collaborator Martin TetrÄault. Swiss duo Voice Crack have now been around for almost thirty years, notching up such notable achievements as thrilling confrontations with Borbetomagus and (more recently) sublime soundscaping as part of poire_z. It is the latter group that this session with Yoshihide most closely resembles. Cinematic music (dark sci-fi) which fuses electronic pulses, scratches, scrapes, whines throbs and rumbles into organic improvisations with an almost compositional logic. The five pieces map out highly distinctive territory and make for possibly the most appealing disc of this group of four. So rich in detail that it could easily take years to get to know well, 'Bits' nags insistently, making complete surrender to its considerable charms inevitable.
Lehn and Schmickler's collaboration is the only disc in the batch to have caused me any problems. Perhaps trouble was to be expected from a disc sharing a name with Matt Groening's famous cartoon creation! My difficulties initially stemmed not from a rejection of the music's considerable qualities, but more from a dislike for the duo's sonic palette. Compounding my negative response was disappointment with Schmickler, whose work with Pluramon I adore but could find no trace of here. Too often the soundworld seemed like a nightmarish imprisonment in an amusement arcade or an imagined conversation between the micro-organisms in an Yves Tanguy painting. My preference for darker, more industrial forms of noise should be apparent, so 'Bart's' bleeps may be less of an initial barrier to other listeners. Lehn plays analogue and Schmickler digital synths, an interesting contrast in itself. When the dialogue becomes less hyper-active, such as on 'os', the duo's individual modus operandi is clearer and actually starts to illuminate the denser areas of the disc which caused me most problems. My initial frostiness has thawed considerably, and I now see the disc as a playful take on the abrasions of Merzbow, which even Homer's tearaway son would approve of. A worthy addition to an even worthier catalogue.