Sometimes bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. For his highly anticipated début at Canada’s Festival International Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville, saxophonist Tim Berne augmented his freedom-meets-convoluted-structure Science Friction Band by adding guitarist David Torn. And while the rest of the band played with their typical combination of anarchy and mind-numbing organization, Torn seemed to be the odd man out, spending most of the time contributing samples, overdriven guitar wails and obtuse chordal punctuations that were over-considered and completely superfluous. Berne would have been better off leaving well enough alone.
Starting out with layers of sound that built the intensity to a fever pitch, Berne finally signalled the band to coalesce around “Van Gundy’s Retreat,” the first track on the group’s most recent release, The Sublime And. Berne, situated centre-stage, was the clear focus of everyone’s attention as he found ways to organize the chaos around him and pull his highly irregular motifs seemingly out of the ether. But while there appeared to be an element of the random, Berne and, in particular, drummer Tom Rainey demonstrated that there was a clear conception running throughout the performance. But at times the barrage of sound coming from Torn and regular guitarist Marc Ducret threatened to overpower Berne.
Keyboardist Craig Taborn seemed content to remain in the background, contributing abstruse chords, electronic squeals, bass lines and odd rhythmic patterns that were, again, sadly lost at times in the mêlée created by Torn. Ducret faired somewhat better, with a sound that was more defined and clearly more simpatico with Berne, as he came together with Berne on some staggering unison passages.
A medley of “Misses Subliminal” and “Heavy Mental” found Berne starting alone, with liberal use of multiphonics that built gradually as the band entered and, again, gave way to Torn’s meanderings which took away from the freedom-with-a-focus approach in which the rest of the band members were engaged.
While Ducret’s contributions cannot be underestimated, the real stars of the show were Berne, Taborn and Rainey who, while sometimes overwhelmed by the sound coming from the two guitarists, demonstrated the most empathic communication. Taborn, in fact, was constantly locked into Berne, both texturally and rhythmically. Rainey demonstrated why he has been Berne’s drummer of choice for some time now; he combines power with subtlety; strength with elegance, and a certain cerebral quality that manages to make his solos both rhythmically charged and ultimately musical.
But it’s a shame that the show was less than it could have been. The audience was clearly enjoying itself, brought the group back for an encore and saved its wildest applause for Torn. One was left wondering if, had the audience actually heard a recording of the show rather than experiencing it on a purely visceral level, they would have been so excited. Torn, more the rock poseur who twiddled knobs and waited for just the “right” moment to insert his senseless ramblings, did more than add little to the performance; he subverted the nature of the quartet and turned what could have been a sublime performance into more a demonstration of crude physicality. And despite the obvious interplay of the regular quartet, he managed to detract from its essence, which is to combine free-flowing textural, ambient and melodic ideas with a more focused and complex structure. Hopefully the Expanded Science Friction Band is a short-lived entity, and Berne gets back to the quartet format that has been responsible for some of his most exciting and adventurous music to date.
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