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Sunday, September 29, 2013

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn & John Tilbury - Exta (Fataka, 2013) ****½

By Stef  

As the label explains :"In ancient Roman religious ritual, 'exta' were the organs of a sacrificed animal offered up to the gods - the lungs, heart, liver and gall bladder; here, Exta is a selection of four pieces (one in two parts) carefully extracted from a long studio session". The trio are John Butcher on saxophones, Thomas Lehn on synth and John Tilbury on piano, three magicians of free improvisation presenting their art as a trio. 

And as can be expected, the result is stunning. As so often with the minimalist approach to music, building sparse sounds around silence, the listener gets shifted between the deception of calm and the illusion of darkness. Nothing you hear is predictable, yet you also know that it will not explode either. The result is an uncanny and relentless tension that starts the album and keeps haunting the listener even after the last sounds have ebbed away. 

John Butcher's sound is as multiphonic, vibrating and resonating as usual, like Tilbury's piano can either be played with a few clear notes or by scraping the inside of it. Lehn is something else. The synth and electronics are not my favorite thing, but Lehn is a master of control, adding the right level of depth and contrast to the sax and the piano, mixing in some white noise and ear-piercing high sustained tones, or some industrial harshness to the cautious sounds of his colleagues. 

"Pulmo" (Latin for lung) comes in two parts, as you can expect from an animal's anatomy. The first part is slow and barely breathing, in contrast to the second part, which is more lively, and extremely beautiful. What the trio brings here is absolutely astonishing in terms of joint soundscaping, and again, Lehn's control and suggested colors add a layer to the music, making it indeed more complete.  

On "Cor" (Latin for heart), the piece shifts from fragile high-pitched playing gradually and slowly, to a more voluminous, dense and tense center part, with rash electronics and heavy piano chords, then silence, but no ... something's still vibrating, pulsing, throbbing far away in the distance, brought to life again by a few carefully placed single notes on the piano, with the sax adding its typical vulnerable beauty. 

"Iecur" (liver) is built around Tilbury's piano introduction, with ominous open arpeggios, with Lehn gradually adding the faintest of sounds, replacing the silence between the piano keys. And like all minimalists, their great strength is the power of restraint, the discipline to let notes resonate in emptiness before a new note is played, at a pace that remains slow and controlled. It takes seven minutes into the piece before we get to hear the sax, nothing more than a faint whisper, then few ripples are made for a while, only to end in some cluttered tones, disoriented somehow, lost in the piece, but coming in structural harmony by the three instruments. 

The album ends with "Fel" (Lating for gall bladder), a short piece, but no less intense than the rest of the album. The tones are low, dark and eery. However generous the offering to the gods may have been with these four organs, the omens do not sound too good. 

Yet a very highly recommended album for fans of Butcher, Tilbury, Lehn, AMM and other minimal improv. 

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