In the midst of mounting musical intensity, the drummer was undaunted when his stick shattered. He continued to pound the beat amid angular guitar washes, soaring tenor sax squalls and percolating electric bass. This was not the latest hipster rock act. It was drummer Jim Black's AlasNoAxis powering through the climactic crescendo of "Tars and Vanish from Dogs of Great Indifferencecelebrating the release in performance at Tonic on June 25.
Over the course of four releases, Black has developed and refined the group's sound: rock energy and distorted guitars combined with the improvisatory exploration, complex progressions and challenging rhythmic foundations of jazz and creative music.
While remaining true to the core sound, Black approached this recording differently to give the disc its own identity. The group's previous effort, Habyor (Winter & Winter, 2004), was song-oriented with overdubbed keyboard, accordion and electronic treatments and counterparts that enhanced the tunes with very little improvisation. For Dogs, Black brought tunes in a raw state, taking a live approach to the session that allowed the musicians spontaneously to voice and arrange their parts without studio embellishment. That exemplifies the confidence and trust Black shares with his simpatico band of improvisers: saxophonist Chris Speed, guitarist Hilmar Jensson and bassist Skuli Sverrisson.
The patience of the music, which allowed the instrumentalists to take time to explore the open frameworks of Black's compositions, was as evident during the Tonic performance as it is on the recording. The title track's loping, off-beat feel emerged from a prologue of swirling atmospherics, before Speed's lyricism rode the groove's momentum, articulating the song's intent. Jensson's combination of distortion and delay created ambience for the spacious "Harmstrong ; Speed provided the subtle theme, allowing it to wander and stretch differently than the recorded version.
That's not to say that the concert, or disc, was all nuance. "Star Rubbed exploded from the start, with Jensson hammering in unison with the cracking snare drum and insistent bass line, contrasted by Speed's longer phrases. On the CD, the threads converge on "Desemrascar, and a rollicking unison of drums and strings sets up Jensson's angular run. The section dissolves, never to return, and the musicians spin a soundscape that ends in an entirely different place.