How hard is it to write an “objective review” of a record that has both The Ex’s incredible pair of guitarists (Terrie Ex and Andy Moor) and the magnificient duo of long time collaborators, free jazz and improv powerhouses, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and reed player Ken Vandermark? Hard, very hard. It is impossible to stay impartial and indifferent while listening to amazing musicians, practically legends, colliding together again in the form of Lean Left and making ridiculously powerful music which rocks, sparks, and thrashes. So buckle up, “Live at Area Sismica” is a wild ride!
And yet, the album is off to a rather subdued start with Terrie and Andy exchanging phrases in a sort of a dialogue, producing sounds which not many guitars out there dare to produce, while Nilssen-Love provides sporadic cymbal hits. Through these sounds, these noises, the basic structure of the music takes form. The buildup is rather patient and subtle, resembling a long-distance runner preparing for a final sprint. And oh boy what a sprint it is! Before long, Vandermark joins in and “Traitors Head” starts exploding and erupting, pulsating with an astonishing amount of energy. That’s the one, the only word that is needed to describe the essence of Lean Left: energy! Fascinatingly, the band keeps, more or less, the same level of intensity throughout the album. More or less, because they give themselves some resting moments, some time for reflective and quieter passages with an almost industrial feel (“Moti”). It is, let’s not forget, a live and uninterrupted performance. If you have ever been so lucky to experience a Lean Left show in the flesh, you know what an exhilarating and mind-blowing experience it can be. An experience that is difficult to capture on record. “Live at Area Sismica” does a good job with that as it comes closer to the ideal of transferring a live performance to your living room than any of their records thus far.
Basically, the four men are on top of their respective games here. Nilssen-Love is drumming like there’s no tomorrow with his trademark part rock, part jazz style, Vandermark is blowing his saxophone ferociously, and the guitar pair from The Ex are creating some scorching, dissonant, and diabolical sounds. If there ever were any hints of disconnect between the guitarists and the free jazz rooted duo in the past, they are completely gone now - only a sense of tenaciousness and mutual understanding remains. The music and performance are tighter than ever, even allowing for some surprisingly melodic segments. This is a band with its own, unmistakable vision. Scratchy, twitchy post-punk rhythms propelled by Terrie’s and Andy’s guitars and by Nilssen-Love’s drumming intertwine with Vandermark’s melodic, free, and occasionally funky saxophone playing. There is a constructive struggle between the instruments which are all trying to be louder, stronger, and dominant. This results with Vandermark going above and beyond what we are used to hearing from him. His saxophone soars, producing awesome licks, like it is trying to break from a tar pit, and by doing so assesses its own sonic domination. Meanwhile, the guitars and the drums keep the rhythm rolling, but at the same time seem to exhibit qualities that we usually identify during solos. It’s chaos, beautiful chaos laced with subtleties and nuances that build the music’s firm structure. Gripping stuff and, overall, more than just a musical fusion. Rather, a philosophical amalgamation of great minds and approaches! It’s easy to tell why the musicians love this project, coming back to it time and time again.
Even though we can identify separate tracks here, with three longer and three shorter pieces, I feel this is an album that is best enjoyed as a single uninterrupted work. Indeed, we hear the audience for the first and last time just as the final note of the closing tune is played. They are ecstatic, they are cheering. When you’re done with “Live at Area Sismica”, you’ll be cheering too.