Grooves, Joe Panzner
Poised precariously on the brink of collapse, somewhere between baroque splendor and scorched desolation, the cover image of Brighton's collapsed West Pier provides the ideal counterpart to Martin Siewert and Martin Brandlmayr's edgy assemblage of teetering feedback drones and entropic percussion rustles. As two-thirds of Vienna's excellent Trapist, Siewert and Brandlmayr are no strangers to the fine line between compositional stability and improvisation's more volatile terrain. As in that group, their musical material emerges through improvisation and is then layered, reworked, and reassembled into a final form that captures both the spontaneity of ideas exchanged in real time and the layered complexity of a studio construction. While seasoned electroacoustic improv purists may flinch at such manipulations, the warm tonal knots and rhythmic eddies juxtaposed throughout Too Beautiful To Burn are bound to offer sensuous surprises for less dogmatic listeners.

Siewert, whose lush and grainy guitar manipulations veer from tonal spirals to scathing noise, dictates much of the musical pacing with dense washes of sustained harmonics or durable prickles from strummed chords. Like his work in Efzeg, Siewert steers clear of New Age wooziness by injecting ample doses of barely restrained noise and pockets of grime into his shimmering, transparent drones. Percussionist Brandlmayr, who provides the nimble android bounce behind Radian's post-funk skitterscape, drops overtly rhythmic gestures in favor of oblique textural play, teasing sympathetic resonance out of vibraphones or scratching up lopsided loops from brushed drumheads or bowed cymbals. On the brilliant opener, "Form," the intersections between Brandlmayr's otherworldly percussion inventions and Siewert's gathering drones create intriguing ripples in the piece's form - each rippling vibes cluster or guitar peal feels as if its ordering the edits rather than being ordered by them. In between evocative asides and ear-opening disruptions, "Source" rises from a deep synth growl and dubbed-out snare swishes to an episodic duel between lacy metallic whirrs and a dissonant undercurrent before settling on a glossy-but-turbulent note of conclusion. Both "Is This Love?" and "Hold" trace out the evocative suggestions of the cover image, the former siding with its gilded glory and the latter with the anxieties of its desertion. Among the most inventive and artfully rendered disc in either of its creator's catalogs, Too Beautiful To Burn teems with both substance and suggestion - a prize from two of Vienna's most promising youth.

Stylus, Ed Howard
If ever there was a perfect title for a recording, Too Beautiful to Burn is the ultimate evocation of the mood and sound captured in Martin Siewert and Martin Brandlmayr's gorgeous, introspective collaboration. The pair, both members of the fertile Vienna improv community, has created a delicate construction as fragile and decorous as the collapsing, fire-damaged piers depicted on the cover. Their interactions blend so subtly that it hardly ever sounds like the work of two distinct individuals. In fact, this album hardly ever sounds like the work of human hands at all: it's easy to even forget that this is music, and to listen to it as a completely natural sound environment. Brandlmayr and Siewert seem to be working almost telepathically here, responding to each other second by second -- which is all the more surprising considering that this is their first meeting as a duo (though they've played together in larger groupings). Siewert contributes a versatile array of instrumentation to the album, switching off between various guitars, electronics, and synths, while Brandlmayr plays drums, percussion, and vibes. The instrument-switching provides some fascinating changeover moments for those paying close attention, but the music is all the more rewarding for how easily most of these moments drift by without notice. On the final track, "Hold," after a brief intro of ambient sound, Siewert leads off with some high-pitched tones before fading them out. As Siewert reduces his electronics into silence, Brandlmayr takes up the sound by gently stroking his cymbals, and the transition, so smooth and intuitive, is completely striking for its inconspicuousness. The music throughout Too Beautiful to Burn is filled with these kinds of moments. Although both musicians clearly set a larger mood of quiet reflection with their improvisations, this mood is placed under heavy magnification within each individual sound. On the opening track, "Form," Siewert's guitar is mostly limited to sharp one-or-two-note clusters, each stroke of the strings pregnant with purpose and strain. In the aftermath of each twang, a warm echo hangs in the air as a complement to Brandlmayr's alternately scraping and clattery percussion.

On "Is This Love?" the interaction between the players is even more seamless. This improvisation is the most traditionally "musical" here, with Siewert crafting bubbly, melodic loops from his synthesizers and laying down a surprisingly straightforward guitar melody, a dense and multilayered palette into which Brandlmayr interjects subtle cymbal splashes and percussive rhythms. The result is utterly disarming, and far from expectations because it almost sounds like a composed song or perhaps one of fellow Vienna native Christian Fennesz's laptop constructions.

While "Is This Love?" is clearly a showcase for Siewert, with Brandlmayr graciously taking the backseat role of providing accents, the rest of the album finds the two men on much more evenhanded ground. This is especially true on the patient, tense unfolding of "Axis" -- which contrasts Siewert's gentle guitar plucks and humming electronics with the reverberating vibes and cymbal washes of his partner -- and the standout nearly 12-minute "Source." The latter track begins with just a low, steady drone from Siewert, as Brandlmayr lays down a clattering, hesitant rhythm. These two sounds -- the warm drone and the pinprick drum hits -- slowly develop over the track's course into a complex, organic interplay that builds tension without ever releasing it. It's a glorious exercise in extended restraint, with Brandlmayr's increasingly complicated rhythms and percussive sidebars constantly riding the soaring highs of Siewert's tiered drones. At around four minutes in, it all drops out into a startling, bassy emptiness, then builds up again just as compellingly from scratch. Too Beautiful to Burn is a work of utter mastery and control by two musicians totally in tune to each other. Each improvisation here unfolds as naturally as a beach shore eroding, and the processes at work within these pieces are nearly as primal and seismic. Neither musician ever seems to be in a rush, and each carefully deploys sounds that set off the other's contributions without crowding the sound field. There are rarely moments of complete silence, but rather pauses packed with anticipation for the next event. But for an album that moves, for the most part, with glacial pacing and subtle interactions, each individual moment is absolutely enthralling -- a beautiful painting shown in detail so that each inspired brushstroke and blended overlap of textures is given its due attention.

The Wire, Brian Marley
The cover image for Too Beautiful To Burn is the storm-lashed and conflagrated ruins of Brighton's West Pier, a superb piece of Victorian architecture. Dilapidation hasn't diminished its beauty, merely offered us a different perspective on what beauty is. The image is apposite: beauty and form, especially the beauty inherent in form, are integral to Martin Siewert and Martin Brandlmayr's music. This isn't the first time these Viennese musicians have recorded together. They, along with bassist Joe Williamson, made an excellent hatOLOGY CD entitled Trapist. Efzeg, of which Siewert (guitars, electronics, synthesizer) is a member, are grainy and noisy (though not necessarily loud) and one of the premier new improv groups on the European scene. Brandlmayr is the percussionist in Radian, whose releases on Rhiz, Mego and Thrill Jockey conflate treated industrial/environmental sounds, electronics and conceptual improvisation. There's often a hint of robotic, nu-beat technology in Radia n's music, but their unsomatic edginess bars them from the chillout room.

As any good improviser will tell you, deciding when and where to situate material is as important as choosing the material to be situated. The raw material for Too Beautiful To Burn may have been realised almost entirely by means of improvisation, but because of the amount of post-production these pieces are, in effect, compositions. In truth, the boundaries between improv and composition have all but collapsed in recent years, and for that we should be grateful. The tolling vibraphone notes, feedback drones and episodic structure of the opening track, "Form", provide charged moments, lulls, unexpected shifts and unanticipated continuities. Too Beautiful To Burn is the most fully realised disc I've heard from either Siewert or Brandlmayr. "Source" uses a soft shoe shuffle percussion loop and gradually swelling drones to hike up tension before the music reaches a point no less active but suggestive of a troubled stillness. This is a surprisingly attractive music, uncontrivedly pretty at times, and never insubstantial. The final track, "Hold", is a tightly edited feedback and bowed cymbal special that turns in on itself and becomes strangely evocative, though of what I've no idea. A certain, perhaps unique feeling is evoked - that, and a true sense of satisfaction.

Signal To Noise, Michael Rosenstein
Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert has quickly made it to my "watch list" of musicians; someone who is consistently pushing improvisation in challenging directions that combine and contrast spare, timbral constructions; pulse-based abstractions; and coursing spontaneous interaction. Percussionist Martin Brandlmayr is working in similar territory, most notably providing the driving undercurrents with the group Radian; delivering a momentum that breathes with an organic tension between beat-perfect precision and layered timbral complexity. The two work together as part of the trio Trapist along with bassist Joe Williamson, but this duo recording is a far more introspective affair. This is music that merges spontaneous improvisation into enveloping soundscape. And for all its striated abstraction, there is a lush beauty. Siewert's guitars, electronics, and synth are draped around the fluid momentum and shaded textures of Brandlmayr's drums, percussion, and vibes. Reverberating guitar notes hang against sheets of bowed cymbals; steely guitar chords resonate over the metallic ring of vibes; shards of feedback and electronic buzz are buoyed along by percussion, hinting around a groove, toying with implied pulses that never fully materialize. The five pieces move like clouds that constantly shift, gather and break open to reveal hypnotic layers of depth and motion. On the surface, the music floats by with a bewitching sheen, but focused listening reveals two musicians immersed in the thoughtful construction of detailed multi-hued spontaneous forms. Friederike Paetzold's package design, with a fluttering flock of birds in flight, waves lapping against the shore, and the haunting image of the burned ruins of the Brighton Beach pier capture the mood and atmosphere of this release perfectly. This is a true gem in Erstwhile's already impressive catalog.