Guitar/Percussion: The Sugar Factory, Zeng!, The German Horse & Dog Day
Fred Frith/Evelyn Glennie
Han Bennink/Terrie Ex
Eugene Chadbourne/Andrea Centazzo
Aaron Dugan/Jeff Arnal
There's something in the air right now. It's the burning stench of electric guitars facing off against drumkits in an enclosed space. There's a plethora of such duo encounters being released at the moment: a spew, a slew, a spate, a rush, a veritable gush. Another unifying character is that at least one of each warring couple invariably has some kind of grounding in rock'n'roll, besides their interest in jazz improvisation.
The best record of this entire crop is undoubtedly the rather unlikely collaboration between old Henry Cow and Massacre axeman Fred Frith and the gently experimental New Music percussion queen (well, Dame Commander Of The British Empire, technically speaking) Evelyn Glennie entitled The Sugar Factory. What's heard on this disc is literally the product of their very first meeting, working together to improvise soundtrack music for Touch The Sound, a documentary investigation into Glennie's world, which also examines the ways in which people hear music.
It's a sonic pleasure indeed, with each player beautifully recorded in the cathedral space of a disused sugar factory in Dormagen, Germany. Once captured, this natural reverb couldn't be taken away, thus contributing to the album's deep sound. Improvisation was their key method and it was only subsequently that Frith organized the results, editing, overdubbing, moving elements around.
The opening establishes a pervading atmosphere, having hints of Tibetan Buddhist ritual, with Glennie's gongs and bells shimmering and resonating, as Frith feeds multi-tiered tone textures from wall to far wall. He plays guitar, bass, organ and metal objects, whilst Glennie rotates amongst her full battery of exotic percussion. As Frith has always enjoyed all aspects of the struck string, he could be deemed a percussionist himself. He ranges from squealing pseudo-Japanese outbursts to distant church organ modulations, even ending up basking in a Hawaiian sunset, as Glennie's marimba ripples to the horizon. Elsewhere, he's at his more caustic, bringing out an industrial metal-shifting side to Glennie's playing, placing her in a refreshingly aggressive setting. May they work together again soon.
Guitarist Terrie Ex is a longtime member of Dutch alternative rock band The Ex and Zeng! is his third collaborative release with drumming countryman Han Bennink. There's a very metallic quality here, a crunched-up industrial clang of glancing string-blows and lashed cymbals. Tight scrabbles and scampering runs make up a near-constant pandemonium of compressed violence, but the slight disadvantage is that such single-mindedness has a cumulative effect of robbing all sense of variety. Yes, there's an ongoing tension between abstract pattering and developing rushes of rhythm, but that's not enough to sustain interest, with the listener sometimes ending up with a disengaged attention. Somehow, the magical spark hasn't been transmitted to the recording.
Once more, we find a guitarist with a rocking past, Eugene Chadbourne of Shockabilly, working with Italian drummer, Andrea Centazzo, who is arriving from a jazz base. Their two-CD set, The German Horse, documents a 1978 Milan gig and 'documents' is the key word, as this is a very average-fi recording. The first disc features two long pieces, quite similar in feel to the encounter between Bennink and Ex, a cautious, episodic exploration.
Chadbourne can make his guitar sound like a tiny plastic ukulele and maybe that's what he's actually playing at this particular stage. Disc 2 is dithery in the extreme. For an audience member at the time, this was probably a more involving experience, but on disc it's almost not there.
Both living in New York, Aaron Dugan and Jeff Arnal have been playing together since 2003 and Dog Day is their first recording as a duo. Many of its tracks are brief bursts, a temporary toying with an idea, then onto the next texture, imparting an episodic feel. Arnal makes great use of tuned skin tumbling, lightly flashing around his kit with varied degrees of force, one moment thoroughly abstracted, the next opening up to a rolling rhythm. Dugan's various pedal effects are also in evidence, his signature sound has a squeezed nasal ring, descending from that of Sonny Sharrock via Wayne Krantz, with elements of John McLaughlin in his wildest incarnation. Dugan's scything angularities can sometimes sound like fractured rockabilly. Arnal can also play rough, even when still using brushes.
The pair held their album release party at Zebulon last month, a coterie of admirers huddled at tables down the front, with a growing crowd at the bar who couldn't help but chatter through the set's quieter portions. This is why their best moments arrived at full throttle, when the drum rhythm was strong and the guitar was fully cranked, cutting above the background noise. They played in front of a film that looked like they hadn't chosen it themselves and this tended to make the more subdued stretches appear as soundtrack music, particularly as Dugan and Arnal sat in complete darkness. The most exciting stretch was when three guests - Amy Carrigan (voice), Reid Taylor (bass) and Seth Misterka (alto sax) - joined them for the final improv. Their presence seemed to lift the music up, swelling Dugan and Arnal with a greater confidence. Vocals and horn paralleled each other and the piece shimmered with cross-latticed energy.
The disc arguably allows a greater appreciation of sonic sensitivity when compared to the duo's gig, even if said sensitivity often entails a more faithful reproduction of torn-up string distress and tonally varied skin-abuse.
Tracks and Personnel
The Sugar Factory
Tracks: A Route of Wolves; In the World to Change the World; A Rag of Colts; Scuttlebutt; A Cast of Hawks; Walls are Loosening.
Personnel: Fred Frith: Metal Objects, Organ, Electric Guitar, Bass Evelyn Glennie: Voice, Paper, Bell-tree, Toy Piano, Simtak, Marimba, Steel Drum, Vibraphone, Metal Objects, Cymbals, Gongs, Drums.
Tracks: Spikkel; Zegnie; Hortsik; Haraf!; Snerk; Radder; Two bruised ribs; Shelly; Pekele.
Personnel: Terrie Ex: electric guitar; Han Bennink: drums.
The German Horse
Tracks: Out off Concert (part one and two); Let Me Take You Down; Gradients in Grado; Gradual Guitar; Out off Concert (part three); Take It; Moog-ging
Personnel: Eugene Chadbourne: guitar; Andrea Centazzo: percussion.
Tracks: Pyrene; Trickum Shoals; Pisco; Flutter Code; Lenora; Magic Hour; APP; Dead in the Water; Collision; Lisboa; Last Legs; Allenby; Paz; Patch of Yellow and Blue.
Personnel: Aaron Dugan: guitar: Jeff Arnal: percussion.