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Barrel: Gratuitous Abuse

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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How far can the primary family of strings be pushed? Does humor—a question once asked by Frank Zappa—still belong in music? From time to time these questions might be answered in a remarkable performance or two, but as creativity in music falters for lack of true industry support, it is not often that musicians can truly express themselves with a mixture of tonality and atonality, in song and through noise. However, there are some musicians who inhabit the very outer edges of contemporary music who care little for established convention and continue to push the envelope no matter the forum in which they perform. This has happened throughout the ages, so it should come as no surprise that musicians such as Australian Liza Lim, accomplished Swiss composer Katharina Rosenberger, and the musicians on the path-breaking Gratuitous Abuse should continue to break from convention in composition, virtuosity and emotion when they perform.

The British trio Barrel has created a set that is revolutionary, funny and breathtakingly audacious, and includes violinist Alison Blunt, violinist/violist/outré improviser Ivor Kallimn, who is known to hack and cough rhythmically) and cellist Hannah Marshall, who blurs the edges between pizzicato and arco. To the uninitiated, this trio of string virtuosos might sound like musical terrorists. However, it is much more than merely a group of shock artists. Genuine creativity and musical innovation is at the heart of the music on this album; as is extreme humor that takes its cue from Dadaism. In fact it is as if the trio has swallowed the great painter Salvador Dali whole and regurgitated him here with chilling accuracy, rendering his melted imagery with its own sense of musical liquefaction.

From Dali Barrel also gets a certain almost shocking humor as well. Musical portraits such as "Sklatch: unseemly semi-liquid mess" conjure images of maddening drama and genuine horror in music, as much like a musical reproduction of "The Persistence of Memory" as it is the horror that emerged from Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield at the height of their days in King Crimson, though Barrel's approach is softer. Humor pervades in the same manner as Zappa brought to his music; so, even when making music that follows a tonal path, quirkiness in the form of shrieks, howls and remarkably twisted harmonies are performed with alacrity, in not-so-mock seriousness.

There is unimpeachable ingenuity here and even when playing "Rigwiddie Snauchle Strikes Again In Style," the mythology of the characters in the narrative comes to life, with the musicians intervening in the sound of their instruments with sighs, growls, whines and percussive coughs. It is also impossible not to mention "Soft Porn & Hard Cheese," as well as the spooky "Moths & Feathers," both worthy of being called musical charts, despite being entirely invented on the spur of the moment. No matter how farfetched they may seem these are real songs by accomplished musicians.

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