By Eric McDowell
If among Oren Ambarchi’s staggering nonstop flood of releases you missed 2012’s Audience of One and its centerpiece “Knots,” you have not one but two more chances to enjoy the Australian guitarist’s epic composition. Live Knots, released last year on PAN, pairs two different versions of the piece, one recorded in Tokyo and the other in Krakow. Even if you didn’t miss Audience of One, you’ll want to see what Ambarchi can do with “Knots” in these varied contexts.
Side A, “Tokyo Knots,” represents what would technically be considered an abbreviated version of the piece, though it still runs upwards of 25 minutes. But even pared ten minutes down from the original and retaining only drummer Joe Talia from the 2012 line-up, this version astonished me with the hugeness and intensity of its sound. It begins with Talia’s driving accented ride cymbal, a through-line for the piece. In contrast Ambarchi builds ambient textures veined with alarming feedback whine. Here as elsewhere Ambarchi proves capable of singlehandedly producing an impressive array of sounds—YouTube footage of the gig, recorded at Tokyo’s SuperDeluxe in March 2013, shows Ambarchi seated behind a bank of electronics, his guitar obscured by knobs and wires.
Minute after minute, Ambarchi and Talia build the piece masterfully, overseeing an almost imperceptible mounting of tension and drama. Along with his indefatigable labor on the drum kit, key to this effect is Talia’s control and restraint. He adds new elements to the beat judiciously so that he always has room to match Ambarchi’s increasingly vertiginous playing, which hits a peak with strobe-lit shredding more likely to risk inducing a seizure than a trance. Inevitably but thankfully the piece comes back down in its final moments—knots coming untied?—leaving things in a distinct state of aftermath with the guitar groaning distantly and the drums methodically thinning to a shimmer.
It may be advisable to rest before starting up “Krakow Knots,” the 42-minute version of the piece that occupies sides B and C, though back-to-back comparisons offer the opportunity to consider which aspects of the composition are fixed and which depend on variable factors. “There is a clear composition and a clear arrangement,” Ambarchi says in an interview on The Quietus. But: “The intention is that it still has a very open and free atmosphere.” The obvious difference here is the number of people on stage—along with Ambarchi and Talia, there’s sound artist Crys Cole on contact mic/spring and violist Eyvind Kang, who’s also conducting the Sinfonietta Cracovia on strings (watch a similar line-up play “Knots” at Cafe OTO here). Along with providing new depth and texture, the added players help draw the composition out to its expanded length, especially towards the beginning and end, including noteworthy moments of eerie tension occasioned as swells of strings are superimposed over the fading groove.
Anyone interested in but intimidated by Ambarchi’s discography might find Live Knots a suitable point of entry, streamlining as it does the guitarist’s varying interests in ambient/electronic soundscapes and head-banging rock.