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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lean Left, KSET, Zagreb, Croatia; 6/1/2016

Photographer Bruno Vunderl
By Antonio Poscic

Terrie Hessels crumples a plastic cup over the neck of his guitar. Andy Moor gingerly scrapes the strings with his fingertips before grinding them with a brush, producing barely audible sparkles and squeaks. Ken Vandermark whispers and rustles through the mouthpiece, gently hissing and spurting half-formed phrases from his saxophone. Paal Nilssen-Love gnashes drumsticks against the rims of the snare and cymbals as he articulates abstract silhouettes of some undefined rhythm. This is how Lean Left tune themselves in and stretch out during the first minutes of their performance. They show us only rough glimpses of what’s to come.

Standing in the back of the stage, Vandermark is the first to attack. He leaves behind the initial contemplative and exploratory phase as he starts pushing out recognizable, bursting and fluid phrases. Nilssen-Love follows
suit, switches into a supple yet energetic style and ventures towards grooves and funky rhythms not far removed from disco. It’s then that the frontline guitar duo Hessels/Moor, from Dutch anarcho-punkers The Ex, go off. While Moor, the most reserved of the four musicians, starts strumming frantically and toying with mock-tremolos, Hessels appears to exist in his own time and space. As if in a fit of possession, he intentionally misconstructs tappings, knocks and grazes strings with a drumstick, swirls the guitar strap… “Eclectic” and “unconventional” are euphemisms when trying to describe Hessels’ playing which acknowledges no “right” and “allowed” ways or rules.

Still, while the first part of the concert is captivating in its own right, there’s something amiss. Unlike during my earlier encounters with the band, the foursome struggles to fully interact during the quieter and improvisationally nuanced passages and dialogs. It’s especially Vandermark, never hiding his fondness of emerging structures and cleverly ordered ideas, that appears a bit lost in the chaotic chemistry of the group. Meanwhile, Hessels continues to build through destruction, perpendicular to the endeavors of the other musicians, as he follows the flow instinctively rather than programmatically, and even veers the improvisational trends ever so often. In these attempts at establishing a protocol, possibly through an expression of frustration, the band finally frees itself and begins entertaining long-lasting, audaciously loud and eruptive moments. The two guitars create droning noises, Nilssen-Love’s drumming varies from the jaunty style reminiscent of Hamid Drake in DKV Trio to firm rock rhythms, whilst Vandermark digs into melodic segments infused with lyricism, simultaneously immersing himself and negating the pandemonium around him. They sound powerful and liberated.

A few days after this concert, Vandermark will recall quotes by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp and characterize himself as a musician whose main goal is to find solutions to problems of interactions and musical creativity in an improvised, spontaneous context. He’s both restricted and inspired by his principles, pushed to the outer edges of creativeness while trying to find meaning and composition in entropy. On the other hand, Terrie Hessels doesn’t solve problems because he doesn’t even acknowledge that there are any. Music for him is an empty canvas on which he scribbles with sounds in an expressionistic, unbidden manner, not afraid of spraying paint outside the canvas. The contrast between these two currents in Lean Left makes for a band of interesting aesthetics and dynamics, a band that’s in a constant state of conflict: tidy spontaneous compositions, jazz sensibilities, developing grooves, and elements of funk on one side and the irrepressible, uncompromising punk presence of The Ex on the other.

Lean Left’s performance reminded me once again that, like with most improvised music, they are really best experienced live. Even very good records such as Live at Area Sismica will ultimately fail to capture the tangible energy and unspoken synergy. It’s something that’s in the air while the audience cheers and whoops, as if confronted with rock stars. Suffice to say, even after three encores, we were still ready for more.


Martin Schray said...

Very nice article and very good photos.

Antonio said...

Thanks, Martin. It was a great show, one of the best I've attended this year.

Lee said...

Agreed, really nice review Antonio. Lean Left is a group I've had a hard time getting into. Now I wonder if I shouldn't try to see them live to really get what they're doing.