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Barrel: Gratuitous Abuse

John Eyles By

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The release of Gratuitous Abuse by Barrel—the trio of violinist Alison Blunt, violinist/violist Ivor Kallin and cellist Hannah Marshall—is a welcome continuation of two ongoing trends in improvised music. First, it adds to the impressive series of Emanem CDs by ensembles consisting solely of improvising string players, joining an illustrious list that already includes Arc (2009), The Stellari String Quartet (2009) and Kent Carter String Trio (2006). Second, it joins a growing list of releases by ensembles which are subsets of the London Improvisers Orchestra, alongside such notable examples as London (Leo, 2010) by Roland Ramadan Tentet and Quartet Improvisations (Psi, 2011) by Tony Marsh—the latter also featuring Blunt and Marshall.

Gratuitous Abuse has all of the strengths that characterize the other members of those lists. Like those all-string releases, Barrel never sounds like a classical string grouping; instead, it is unmistakably an improvising string trio that steers clear of the clichés and well-worn pathways of chamber music and produces its own fresh, vibrant music. In common with other subsets of LIO, the members of Barrel display the effects of playing together over a period of years; they are well tuned into each others' playing styles and reactions, leading to close, tight improvising involving all three equally, mostly simultaneously.

Of the album's four tracks, two are gig recordings from April 2009 and January 2010; two digital home recordings, made by Kallin at John Bisset's home, are sandwiched in-between. The shortest track (at under two minutes) is "Soft Porn & Hard Cheese," which opens with brief chords played by everyone—original chords, but as close as they get to ensemble playing here—before launching into rapid-fire exchanges that are breathtaking and probably could not have been sustained for a prolonged period. On the other three tracks, things unfold at a more subdued pace but one that is sufficiently brisk to set pulses racing. All three players contribute to an ever-shifting collage of pleasingly melodic phrases and fragments that is not dominated by any one of them. Because of their instruments' pitches and tonal qualities, Blunt and Kallin's playing occasionally becomes entwined, while Marshall's cello remains distinct and clear in the lower register, but more often the three complement each other, combining into one integrated entity.

A playful sense of good humor, fun and occasional mischief pervades the group and album. It begins with the group name Barrel, which came about as the three contend they do "a lot of scraping," and extends to the titles of the album and its tracks as well as the tone of the players' brief autobiographic sketches in the sleeve notes. In the music, it is most obvious in Blunt and Kallin's occasional use of their voices to complement or contrast with the sound of the strings. Blunt's high pitched squeals and whoops are offset by Kallin's more guttural interjections, splutterings, growls and mouth music.

Gratuitous Abuse is a gem from start to finish, and a worthy addition to the Emanem canon.

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