The Austin based Astral Spirits is one of my favorite labels on the planet. I had a shot at writing about one of their last batches of cassettes, but, swamped with work, I dropped the ball, and have been kicking myself ever since – something I have no intention of repeating. The imprint got rolling in 2014. With a startling pace, they’ve issued some of the most ambitious release to have emerged during the subsequent years – largely focused on free-improvisation and various iterations of contemporary experiential music. With an incredible high bar, Astral Spirits represents a rare support infrastructure within this spectrum of sound – almost entirely dedicated to the present day, and to efforts that would otherwise remain hidden from view – presenting an astounding vision of the context. They are one of the labels I had in mind when I wrote my sprawling advocation for the cassette format, Why Tapes Matter – a principle which their latest batch of releases further cements – four fantastic tapes, respectively by Andrew Smiley, W-2, HMS, and Michael Foster & Ben Bennett.
HMS – Tetrad (2017)
Straight off the bat, this is a beautiful record. A sprawling series of sonic constructions which, while firmly grounded within established territories of experimental music, defy a great many of the standing presumptions about how, and with what, these ideas come to be. HMS is the quartet of Joe Houpert, Nathan McLaughlin, Erich Steiger and Steve Perrucci, who, as far as I can tell, have come together from various locations on the East coast, to build an incongruous and singular spectrum of sound. Houpert & McLaughlin often play as a duo under Loud & Sad, as well as in solo projects and a number of other ensembles, while Houpert and Perrucci have a project called Warning, which put out a tape on Digitalis a few years back. It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly makes Tetrad so special. To some extent, it’s the quality of its structural approach and chosen instrumentation, but the most striking element is its sense of space and the acoustic hierarchy imposed on the elements through it. The album’s definition draws on a startlingly egoless sense of give and take. Each pallet and instrument – drums, guitar, synth, etc, rising forward in the organic mix, while all others come together in a unified mass – working toward a rippling, brittle ambient wall of interplay, where distinction is lost. An effort of sonic collectivism and support, with a stunningly captivating and unexpected result. These are the brave and underrepresented territories of exploration, which remind you what tapes are all about.
Andrew Smiley – Dispersal (2017)
Dispersal is the debut solo release by Andrew Smiley – best known for his work within the NY based quartet of improvisors Little Women. It finds him taking a radical departure from the Math Rock / Free-Jazz hybrid charted by that outfit. The album is a solo guitar effort, threaded by the subtle introduction of voice. A brave, fractured, and scattered collection of note and tone, falling somewhere between the work of Storm And Stress, Derek Bailey, and Keiji Haino, with an occasional peppering of Mick Turner’s solo work – though its raw, personal intimacy makes drawing parallels seem slightly unfair. The work, which stretches across both sides of the cassette, begins with delicate clusters of notes, interspersed with the moan of Smiley’s voice, before slowly gathering steam toward a full on blast of raw, angular, percussive work on the guitar, veering increasingly toward the spectrum of noise. While references to Haino’s early work on Watashi Dake? are bound to be raised, the territories Smiley are particularity distinct – pregnant with a different kind emotiveness, feeling distinctly American and undeniably honest. It is a work with sheds artifice and presumption, treading further and further toward risk laden territories of the unknown. A striking debut, which unquestionably worth picking up, and sure to grow with ear over time.
W-2 – Fanatics (2017)
W-2 are the Brooklyn based tenor saxophonist Sam Weinberg, and synthesizist Chris Welcome, who also plays with the Flying Luttenbachers. The project is nothing short of a sonic onslaught – the land where harsh electronics, 80’s Hardcore, and the wildest territories of Free-Jazz join. Experimental music as a cathartic vent, and about as close the raw fire of Alabama Feeling era Arthur Doyle, that something contemporary and relevant is likely to get. This is music for a broken world which still manages to get its boot on your neck – the defiance of genres and categories which wall us in. Weinberg and Welcome’s constructions, almost destroy the necessity to describe them as sound – the player and instrument transmogrifying into something more. Fanatics is an assembly of pure emotion and anger, which happens to find itself in sonic form – a lens into a state of being, and a wild primal cry from the bottom of two hearts. A battle between two dynamic spectrum of sound, who’s interplay joins as one of the most engaging assemblies I’ve heard in this territory I’ve heard in a number of years.
Michael Foster & Ben Bennett – In It (2017)
As the first patterns of In It begin to emerge, a realization of why Ben Bennett is increasingly considered a drummer of note. Following a killer solo effort on Astral Spirits last year (Trap), he returns to the label, joined by the Brooklyn-based saxophonist / improvisor Michael Foster, who, like Bennett, has assembled a remarkable laundry list of collaborations over the last five years. Together the occupy a startling and optimistic vision for the territories of improvised sound.
Foster and Bennett represent an interesting juncture in the history of music – a younger generation pushing the accomplishments of those previous, forward. Though perhaps easier to categorize their efforts as free improvisation, and thus free of politics and association, In It is Free Jazz through and through. An American music tinged with the blues, returning home. While the classification “free improvisation” is generally considered to be more benign, the term is among the most pregnant of all. It came to prominence on two fronts – used by Free Jazz players in an attempt to liberate themselves from the critical categories long associated with Jazz, and by European players who wanted to distance themselves from the American tradition from which they drew. Whether recognized or not, these terms are loaded signifiers. Free improvisation, as a history, category, or determinant, is a double edged sword. Particularly in Europe, its beginnings are bound to cultural appropriation, but it equally instigated an evolution in this music which allowed to become post-racial, and cross cultural – opening an astounding network of sonic conversations which stretch through the decades, and across the globe.
What is crucial to recognize, is that for a number of decades, younger generations of American improvisors have drawn more heavily on the territories opened the European scenes – presenting stronger connections to AMM, MEV, ICP, the scene documented by the German imprint FMP, and the English efforts which grew around Derek Bailey, David Toope, and number of others, than to Jazz. Given the diversity of approach, it is impossible to enforce any strict categorization, but what remains consistent through out (despite the many collaborations which occurred with Free-Jazz players), is a fracture with this music’s American roots.
Foster and Bennett’s efforts, as they appear across In It, represent a fascinating return – a music which, enabled by historical distance, hints at free improvisation’s roots in the blues. A hybrid music which draws on a blending of many pasts, to present a vision for possible futures. Theirs is a music of deep emotion, interplay, and call and resonance – formed by brilliant technique and a carefully honed ear. As great improvisation always is, these are sounds defined their silences as much as the note and beat, where listening has a greater role than what is played. A stunning debut by a duo that I hope to hear more from over the years, this is definitely one to get.
And with that, once again, Astral Spirits has hit the nail on the head. A killer batch, in a long line of brilliant work. The four tapes are out on June 23rd, you can grab / preorder them via Astral Spirits. I highly recommend that you do.