Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 2 - May 16, 2008
With a career that's ranged from solo prepared-guitar improvisations to classical compositions such as those heard on Eleventh Hour (Winter & Winter, 2005), it's Fred Frith's rock groups that remain some of his most memorable ensemble, including Henry Cow, Art Bears and Keep the Dog. It's been a long time since Frith put together an ostensibly rock band but, based on his performance at Cinema Laurier, Cosa Brava may be one of his best. While its penchant for strong melody may have been at odds with those FIMAV attendees whose tastes lean more to the extremes, suggestions that the group's music was simplistic were far off the mark. Like Zorn's The Dreamers show on day one of FIMAV 2008, Cosa Brava is undeniably accessible. But with complex counterpoint, episodic writing and songs that effortlessly shifted in tone and texture, there was clearly a lot more going on under the hood than the potentially but deceptively reductive sound of the end result.
Carla Kihlstedt, Fred Frith, Matthias Bossi, Zeena Parkins
With a visible quartet featuring violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), keyboardist/accordionist/vocalist Zeena Parkins (Skeleton Crew, John Zorn, Nels Cline) and drummer/singer Matthias Bossi (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots), Frith has assembled a group of contemporary players who have already proven themselves capable of expanding pop/rock music into more experimental directions. With sonic manipulator The Norman Conquest (Norman Teale) working offstage, Frith has been able to realize and even greater audio landscape.
It takes great skill to fashion a sound rooted in complexity yet avoiding the trappings of over-consideration, but Frith's writing succeeded so well that the various stops and starts, irregular meters and elliptical melodies went by naturally, with a feeling of unforced ease. Switching between electric guitar and bass, it was also a chance to hear Frith play without all the prepared trappings of his free improv duo show with saxophonist Anthony Braxton at FIMAV 2005. Still, Frith's control of effects was remarkable, as he would put down his guitar, pick up the bass, create a bass loop and then return to guitar.
With Cosa Brava just off a seventeen-date European tour, the group worked its way through Frith's deceptive writing with a chemistry that allowed it to reference Celtic folk melodies, progressive rock tendencies and atmospheric ethereality without ever resorting to the obvious. Bossi's strength was his ability to imply groove while rarely setting into conventional backbeat-driven pulse, choosing instead tribal tom toms contrasted with delicate wood bocks and sharper punctuation. Parkins, who played more keyboard than accordion, created a wealth of textural backwashes, but was an equal member when it came to complex contrapuntal lines shared by her, Kihlstedt and Frith. While delineated solos were a rarity in the show, Parkins' occasional spotlights were compelling as ever.
With everyone in the group commanding attention, and with interest in Frithstanding towards the back of the stage beside Bossia given, it was Kihlstedt who demanded the most notice. Diminutive, but visually arresting as she created sweeping melodies and propulsive chordal rhythms, her rarified singing worked in contrast to Frith's deeper, yet equally attractive voice.
The only downside about Cosa Brava's show was that there was no CD to buy afterwards. Still, with interest in the group growing, and Frith's clear enjoyment of working with Kihlstedt, Parkins, Bossi and The Norman Conquest, there's hope that a disc won't be too far off.
If The Dreamers was John Zorn at his most accessible, the polar opposite Moonchild was Zorn at his most aggressive and challenging. Not because the music was complexthough the arrangements he has written for bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Joey Baron and singer Mike Patton were far more complicated than they might have seemed, so overpowering was the sheer volume and intensity of the groupbut challenging to withstand because the music of Moonchild, undeniably Zorn's loudest project since his early 1990s Painkiller trio, was the musical equivalent of projectile vomiting. Clinically interesting, but not exactly a pleasant experience.
That Baron can move from the subtleties of his work with John Abercrombie (and, for that matter, the relatively nuanced The Dreamers) to full-out bashing speaks to his breadth of skill. Dunn was impressive the previous evening, but he was overall more rhythm section anchor. Here he was the group's melodic (if one can use that term to describe the trio) leader, creating all the harmonic contexts around which Patton delivered his indecipherable screams, guttural growls and high pitched squeals.
Joey Baron, Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn
While The Dreamers attracted a slightly larger crowd, accommodated by setting up approximately 540 chairs in the Colisee's concert hall, Moonchild was nearly as packed with a slightly smaller seating capacity. Both the audience reaction and the relative popularity of the trio's three discsMoonchild (Tzadik, 2006), Astronome (Tzadik, 2006) and Six Litanies for Heliogabalus (Tzadik, 2007), the latter an expanded version also including Jamie Saft, Ikue Mori, Zorn on sax and three additional vocalistssuggests that Moonchild is here to stay, at least as long as the prolific Zorn continues to be interested in writing for it.
First emerging with the equally hardcore Mr. Bungle (where he first met Trevor Dunn) and the more commercially palatable Faith No More, Patton possesses the ability to sing in a more conventional fashion, but here it was all-stops-out, as he prowled the stage, crawling around at times like a simian and other times like a crab. His exaggerated expressions and over-the-top vocals commanded equal attention alongside Dunn's full-out body-slam bass playing. Baron, playing like a man possessed, was largely hidden behind a much larger kit than he usually plays, seen only occasionally as he stood up to create great washes of sound around his many cymbals.
The music of Moonchild is certainly not for everyone, absolutely not for the faint-of-heart or those trying to protect their ears (even with earplugs and at a distance, this group was loud). But for anyone with even the slightest bit of head-banging metal in their background, Zorn's Moonchild provided plenty of catharsis, along with writing that was deceptively complex, and demanding so much intensity from the trio it's likely that coming off the stage they were completely energized, but not long after totally enervated.
Tomorrow: Houle/Smulovitz/Gagnons/Griffiths, Baumann/Ziegler, Spunk.