Review: The Spanish Donkey – XYX

Friday, March 23, 2012

Historically, the “Spanish donkey” was a torture device at work during the American colonial period, consisting of what resembles a gymnastic vaulting horse sharpened to a pointed wedge at the top. The victim would be stripped naked and made to straddle this as one might a donkey, before having weights attached to their feet and… well, you can picture the rest (especially thanks to the help of the album cover, which sports an image of the device in action). It was not unknown for the wedge to slice through its victim. Brutal, no doubt, but with that special sort of ingenuity that people seem to have when thinking of creative ways in which to be abysmal to one another hidden within the seeming simplicity of its design. Such devices might even be beautiful, if they could be divorced from their purpose.

Whilst we are permitting this digression, I wonder if ever there were friendly arguments after hours between executioners and torturers over who had the harder task? The executioners of old – before the technological innovations of the late eighteenth century, when taking a life was often a far more intimate affair – might argue that to dispatch somebody cleanly takes no small degree of precision and mastery of their tools, but I suspect the torturers could retort that their career carried the same demands, only it is harder to hold somebody over the edge of the precipice without allowing them to fall than to throw them clean off of it.

I have spoken before on names, so we could (and indeed should, given the purpose of this write-up) take a moment to explore here how appropriate the name feels when applied to the band who have chosen to take this moniker for their own. The album consists of two long-form tracks (they offer a relatively short digital bonus, available for streaming below). Both offer demonstrations of both the capacity for animal brutality and calculated restraint one might expect of a technician of cruelty, yet one feels safe in their hands as they work. They take us as close as we can hope to get to the successful separation of such a machine from its original implication, taking us away from it, but never quite removing its shadow from our view.

Mid-Evil is the opener and, at a little shy of the 40-minute mark, the longer of the two. It is also, to my ears, the most energetic. It is impressive, the energy these gentlemen (Jamie Saft on guitar, Joe Morris on keys and bass, Mike Pride on percussion and nose whistle(!)) have. The title track is shorter and more (albeit only slightly) subdued, and where it seems Mid-Evil might never let up, the guitar sounds at its opening like it is playing the sort of lounge jazz you may expect from the sort of establishments we know from American film and television in the 1980s plainclothes law enforcers spend a good deal of their time, only with a more distorted bass to that which they might be accustomed. This lasts about five minutes, until we find ourselves being hauled back into their home territory, which is where that organ kicks in (all the more unsettling for my having recently watched The Abominable Dr Phibes – you can too, here). The beast here sneaks up on you, but once it has you in its maw it does not let up until it has finished its work.

There is never a dull moment. You can allow it the sound to wash over you, or you can tune in and try to penetrate its many layers and nuances (a point made far better by Paul Acquaro over at Free Jazz).

It is no less of the free-jazz freakery I have reviewed both positively and negatively in the past, but it feels somehow a little more harnessed. This is a good thing, which I shall attempt to clarify (but will instead probably wind up getting myself muddled and latching on to some other odd comparative that seems to make up the bulk of my writing). The complaints that I made in my previous review do not apply here. This is not the out-of-control vehicle with too many drivers described there, but more like Cerberus – a three-headed beast that, having been disturbed, has erupted into a wild fury, but, once the chase is over, simmers back down to its rest. The tracks might seem as though bursting with all the violence of Hades, yet things wind to what seems a very natural finish and, at last, we are allowed to capture our breath, ready – perhaps – to dive in once again.

Here are some samples; one visual, both audible:

The Spanish Donkey | NYC @ Death By Audio | 28 Jul 2011 from (((unartig))) on Vimeo.

Purchase: Northern Spy Records

You can read more about the individual artists here.


Review: Rhys Chatham – Outdoor Spell

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

We continue our exploration of the catalogue of Northern-Spy Records with Paris-based American post-minimalist pioneer Rhys Chatham’s Outdoor Spell, a body of work largely based around trumpet and voice, rather than the guitar pieces for which Chatham is more widely known. Indeed, the only guitar present on the album appears in only one of the four tracks and is not played by Chatham himself, but by French avant-garde guitarist and GRIM co-founder (Le Groupe de recherche et d’improvisation musicales) Jean-Marc Montera.

I get the impression – though I have no means of propping up this theory myself as yet – that having some knowledge and appreciation of Chatham’s prior work might make for a more complete and rounded experience. As it is, coming to it without, a feeling is left (and not merely by the reviews of the work, though these have cemented this gut response) that this perhaps reflects a side to Chatham that is not as usual. It makes it harder, perhaps, to appreciate in isolation. Of the pieces herein, the one I would return to second most frequently (in actuality, one of only two tracks here I would revisit with any great enthusiasm) would be The Magician, a 12-minute band piece also featuring Kevin Shea on drums, but even this can seem at points as a roughshod free jazz ride in which it seems the whole thing holds its course only because all involved happen to be on the same vehicle, even if there is some doubt as to who is actually doing the driving. This seems most apparent by its lack of cohesive conclusion, as the track disappointingly fades out to close off the album.

For a more controlled ride, you might prefer title track and album opener Outdoor Spell, a drone piece that sees Chatham utilising effects on his voice to create a field in which his trumpet is allowed to burst forth in moments of play. It creates an opening salvo that the rest of the album cannot quite return. I would go so far as to say that this track fades too soon. As it dwindles there are signs that there are more ideas that could work here. Instead, we are plunged into the chaos of Crossing the Sword Bridge, an untidy track that seems cut together not quite at random.

Perhaps I am denigrating this release in too off-hand a fashion and maybe a little aural research into Chatham’s history might assist in winning me over, but as a standalone introduction to an artist, this does not do it for me. The research undertaken in preparing this article has done more of this for me, so perhaps I might recommend starting with that and coming around to Outdoor Spell only after exposure to some of his other works. An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, a 3 disc set released on Table of the Elements seems a not too unreasonable place to start, if you can get it.

Rhys Chatham: Official Website

Purchase: Northern-Spy Records (see also for audio and video samples)