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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Oren Ambarchi & Jim O’Rourke - Behold (Editions Mego, 2015) ****½

By Derek Stone

In the worlds of improvised and experimental music, the company you keep can be just as significant a choice as the compositions (or lack thereof) that you play. Oren Ambarchi is no stranger to this maxim, having associated himself with some of the weightiest names in the game: Keith Rowe, Merzbow, and Keiji Haino, to name a few. On Behold, Ambarchi once again shows his penchant for first-rate collaborations, as he here joins Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke cuts an interesting figure in the music industry - he’s released or been associated with a mind-bogglingly diverse range of projects, from acerbic pop (Insignificance, Eureka), to the Fahey-indebted folk stylings of Bad Timing, to the free-jazz guitar workouts of 2014’s Vandermark/Nilssen-Love collection, Extended Duos. While Ambarchi and O’Rourke have worked together numerous times in the past few years, this is only their second duo recording (the first being 2011’s Indeed).

“Behold One” opens with muted, spectral tones, and quickly unfolds into something resembling an ambient soundscape. From the get-go, it’s clear that a great deal of thought has gone into fleshing out these textures - far from simply being a homogeneous drone, this first piece is packed with unanticipated textures and effects: snatches of conversation, cars starting, synths that bubble up out of the ether and rapidly dissipate. A few minutes in, when Ambarchi’s drums enter, it’s clear that Behold cannot be written off as just “ambient.” In fact, quite the opposite: it actively seeks your attention, and it rewards careful listening. Midway through, Ambarchi’s kick-drum is the slowly-beating heart of the composition, while O’Rourke’s alien sound-effects orbit and swirl all around. When a thick, bone-rattling bass-tone rises up from this whirling mass, it’s both startling and exhilarating. Clearly, Ambarchi and O’Rourke know how to establish atmosphere and ratchet up musical tension; the first half of Behold is proof.

“Behold Two” exhibits the same meticulous attention-to-detail heard in the first, but it seems more willfully “song-like,” with organ effects and retro synths that recall the spaced-out melodicism of mid-70’s Tangerine Dream. A few minutes in, Ambarchi’s drums return to provide a steady pulse to the composition, while blissful layers of sound stack themselves up to the heavens. More than halfway through, all of this build-up (though admittedly enjoyable in its own right) results in a simple, repeating motif on the piano from O’Rourke, one that helps drive the piece upward. While the opening is somewhat minimalistic, akin to floating in the frigid depths of interstellar space, “Behold Two” eventually pushes itself into a more celestial sphere, with squalling guitar feedback from Ambarchi and percussion that gets louder and louder.

On Behold, Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke meet at the glorious intersection of electronic and analog, producing something that marries the best tendencies of both. It’s swathed in synths and textures, but it is warmly human; it’s driven by Ambarchi’s percussion and (later) O’Rourke’s stirring piano, but it is often otherworldly. These are contradictions, sure, but one of the joys of experimental music lies in its ability to cut through seeming contradictions, to show us combinations and configurations that we thought impossible. Behold does all of this, while still being eminently listenable and engaging - I’d call that a success by any metric!