A HAWK AND A HACKSAW
On A Hawk and a Hacksaw's terrific new Cervantine, accordionist-percussionist Jeremy Barnes and violist-violinist Heather Trost have ditched the training wheels to show off what they've learned from the master Romany musicians they've rehearsed, recorded, toured, and drank with.
They spent nearly two years living in Budapest, Hungary, in 2007 and '08, and for the first time they're applying their education to original material: the album opens with Barnes's epic "No Rest for the Wicked," a multipart instrumental that shifts gears and styles like an eight-stage relay race. Its rhythms and melodies are all rooted in the eastern European music the couple have explored since they began playing together in 2004 (Barnes started the project on his own in '01), but the way they navigate among them—with stop-start transitions and craftily layered transitions—is all their own. They hold fast to the breakneck rhythms and jagged, swooping melodies of Hungary, Romania, and Turkey—strings saw and scrape, accordions pump and wheeze, brass puffs in pointillistic patterns, percussion clatters in off-kilter time signatures—but across the record they push and pull on those traditional sounds.
Shades of mariachi brass color the Balkan horn blasts on "Española Kolo" (the kolo is a circle dance from eastern Europe, and Española refers to a New Mexico town), a nod to an unlikely Mexican influence on Romany brass bands, which A Hawk and a Hacksaw's current bio claims arose because Mexican soap operas are shown on TV in eastern Europe. The group's repertoire extends to the Mediterranean with a couple of raucous rembetika numbers, "Mana Thelo Enan Andra" and "The Loser (Xeftilis)," both of which feature longtime touring member Chris Hladowski on bouzouki and his sister Stephanie on vocals (they're the core of the English band the Family Elan). Chris has played the bouzouki since he started working in AHAAH, but this is the first time they've tackled the style that introduced most Americans to the instrument.
The Hladowskis' presence notwithstanding, on Cervantine A Hawk and a Hacksaw rely largely on U.S. talent, the first time they've done so in a few records: trumpeter Samuel Johnson is from Chicago (he's part of Mucca Pazza), and tuba player Mark Weaver, hand percussionist Issa Malluf, and drummer Charles Papaya are all from New Mexico. Barnes recorded the album with former Chicagoan and Icy Demons bassist Griffin Rodriguez, who went to school with Barnes at DePaul and played with him in Bablicon, his first band after Neutral Milk Hotel, and they use lots of subtle and not-so-subtle tricks to give the music a surprisingly contemporary sound—they're not trying to pass off A Hawk and a Hacksaw as an unreconstructed Gypsy band. At the start of "At the Vulturul Negru" the music suddenly slows down, revealing itself to be "only" a tape, and then the "real" band jumps in; the opening cut uses instrumental layers from separate takes with radically different miking, so that you might hear a distant, fuzzy recording of a violin or accordion float in beneath a clean track of the same instrument. As good as Cervantine is, though, I can't help but feel that A Hawk and a Hacksaw's best work is still ahead of them—now that they've mastered their adopted language, I can't wait to hear them really start to play with it.
The latest album by this group from Bologna, Italy, pushes its genre-averse music further than ever into unclassifiability. For lack of a better term I'd call ¾HadBeenEliminated art-rock, but that doesn't account for the wide-open swaths of murky ambient drone and noise. The packaging of Oblivion doesn't help—there are no titles for the album's four tracks, none of the group's four members (Claudio Rocchetti, Stefano Pilia, Valerio Tricoli, and Tony Arrabito) is so much as named, and no instruments are credited.
Their previous records included aggressive, rock-derived passages that owe a big debt to early This Heat, but the bulk of this one is a quiet, eerie, undulating drift: its murmured tones, alternately sustained and flickering, seem to come from electric guitar, piano, strings, electronic keyboards, and computer (though there's no way to tell what's played and what's sampled or emulated). Occasional field recordings help give Oblivion the feel of some sort of digital musique concrete, as unsettling as it is unstructured. Often someone is singing, delivering a slow, rambling melody in a shy, diffident voice that's somewhere between a mumble and a warble—this ends up imposing a loose narrative shape on the tracks, though there's no obvious logic at work in the ever-changing backgrounds.
The drums sit out the majority of the album, and when they enter they're usually skeletal and intermittent, their distended patterns signaling a transition between textures with a brief heartbeat surge. Toward the end of the third track, a building wave of noise—like a hundred symphonies at once, all played on radios that won't tune in—envelops the somnambulant singing, then instantly falls away to reveal a collage of field recordings, distant electronic tones, and clicking sounds like somebody working an old tape deck. Even without a single verse, chorus, or hook, these amorphous "songs" fascinate with color, texture, and the ever-present mystery of what they are or mean to be.
MORITZ VON OSWALD TRIO
In the early 90s German producer and musician Moritz von Oswald quietly revolutionized techno, submerging its driving beat in gauzy ambience and the ricocheting reverb of dub—as prominent techno writer Philip Sherburne put it, he was making "music of horizontal energies, sinking in and spreading out." Beginning with a production team and label called the Basic Channel, von Oswald and collaborator Mark Ernestus laid the groundwork for nearly two decades of minimal techno, from the lean output of Kompakt to the ubiquitous sound of dubstep.
Von Oswald got his start in the mid-80s with arty Hamburg band Palais Schaumburg and shortly thereafter developed an obsession with dub, which hasn't let go of him yet—the Basic Channel is still reissuing out-of-print early records from classic New York reggae label Wackies. Dub is also a key element in his latest project, the Moritz von Oswald Trio, but he's moved well beyond the club music he helped pioneer. Though the word "trio" might put you in mind of jazz, which this isn't, the group's music is in fact improvised. On their third album, Horizontal Structures, the trio has departed further from obvious grooves, preferring implied beats, amorphous melodic patterns, and careful layering that maintains rigorous distinctions between the players' various contributions.
Von Oswald uses keyboards and computers, and his partners in the trio, Max Loderbauer (Sun Electric) and Sasu Ripatti (aka Vladislav Delay), contribute synthesizers and percussion, respectively—in the past Ripatti has played berimbau, water-filled metal bowls, and homemade sculptural instruments, among other things, and here it sounds like he's brought some hand drums too. On Horizontal Structures they're joined by two guests, guitarist Paul St. Hilaire and jazz bassist Marc Muellbauer (a collaborator of accomplished German pianist Julia Hülsmann).
The album consists of four lengthy jams, averaging about 15 minutes, that progress leisurely but purposefully. Ripatti doesn't lay down complete beats, but instead wanders from one pattern to another, playing off an implied groove usually established by acoustic or synthetic bass tones; von Oswald and Loderbauer alternate between plush electronic washes and terse melodic squiggles, often dropping in an electronic rhythm as well, and St. Hilaire adds a mix of extended but restrained improvisations and faraway vamping. Von Oswald's live mixing adds some echo effects, but the primary dub influence is less direct—it's more at the level of technique, in the way the musicians move details around the sonic canvas in ethereal washes and splattery splashes.
My first listen didn't yield much, but on each subsequent spin I've discovered a new detail or discovered how a single rhythmic accent or a subtle shift in tone can suddenly redirect the considerable momentum these pieces develop. On last year's Live in New York, you can hear the crowd whoop in response to the tiniest of changes, as though the shifts were seismic—and if you immerse yourself in this recording thoroughly enough, they'll feel that way to you too. v