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Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Gate - Chuck / In the Sea - Henry Crabapple Disappear

As most of you know, there's a small label based out of Austin, Texas called Astral Spirits. If you aren't an Astral Spirits convert yet, you haven't been paying enough attention. Aside from the music being interesting, innovative and, for the most part, improvised, they have no set style restrictions. Their releases are curated by labelhead Nate Cross and reflect his exquisite taste. I have been in talks with him over the last couple weeks, discussing releases and the future of the label. Look for these transcripts in a coming feature. For now, we rundown four releases. The first two were distributed as a part of Astral Spirits most recent release batch and come in both cassette and download formats. The other two comprise Astral Spirits first VINYL release batch(!). These records will see release in January 2016 and are available for pre-order now.

By Joel Barela

The Gate - Chuck (Astral Spirits, 2015) ****


In last year’s brilliant review of Stench, Dan Sorrells called himself a recovering metalhead before commenting on the fact that it “never goes away.” It’s a deft analysis on musical paths, especially as listeners. Because, to be fair, we’re the reactors, right? Recovering from metal is like “recovering” from sustained tobacco use: either you relapse – often repeatedly – or you don’t, but the damage is done either way. What I found most interesting were the comments below the Stench review, where several others admitted to affinities for heavy/violent music before turning to jazz. I, too, arrived at jazz after metal. Not that I’ve forsaken the “dark arts” altogether; one of my favorite albums this year is Krallice’s Ygg huur, and seeing that Colin Marston (guitarist for Krallice and musician supreme) recorded, mixed and mastered Chuck definitely didn’t subdue my interest in the album. Much of what makes The Gate compelling still shows definite parallels. Take, for instance, the insistence on complicating legacy. This is especially “metal" - where an artist invites enough smoke and mirrors to manifest concurrent artistic endeavors under a common name: one, the music, the other, the backstory. It’s only slightly different from guys like Bob Dylan, but antagonizing reporters and falsifying your origins isn’t quite the same as flipping a cross and having a picture of a suicide grace your album cover. The thrill of The Gate is that they came in from the other side, but, as DS suggested, it never went away. The Gate began as the Dan Peck Trio, named for the tuba-toting bandleader in the most “jazzy” of all band name formats. Soon though - on cue, you might say - the relapse occurred. The band became The Gate. The graphics on their t-shirts and album covers and media became those of death and decay and rot. Their site address name drops Cthulhu. You get it. The backstory is black as hell. What then of the music?

'Demon Loaf' begins with brief effected tuba; then, two full bars of absolute silence. This repeats for a half-minute before the bass and tuba converge. Eventually, Brian Osborne motors in on the kit before a snare crack grinds the flow to a full stop. A whole rest ensues, followed by the full trio: bass, tuba, drums - Tom Blancarte's strings like disassembling blocks; the tuba, especially burly. The big horn teases a melody briefly before shifting to bleats like laser blasts. A furious improv commences. No matter the clip of the drums, the double low-end creates a lope. By the song's midpoint, the tuba is alone and a pattern walks - walks to another full stop. This one seems like hours. If you haven't read about it beforehand, you'll check to see if your device is working, to see if the the song's over. It isn't. They make a noise like someone walking on the floor above the basement. Erratic. At times, chaotic. Then a note from Blancarte. Funny on a Gate album but I would go so far as to call it a "holy" note. It might not keel over for some deity, but that thing is full of belief in something. And then it's all ambient. All in. And yeah, it sounds like Wolf Eyes (vintage Wolf Eyes, not their recent twisted Americana nonsense), but it also reminds me of Cultus Sabbati (which you should definitely check out if you're into some scary shit). You can even hear a little Prurient, if not as violent. It's pretty awesome, listening to this band take something so muscular at song's beginning and completely emaciate it, just completely waste it away. Like they've caught on to the fact that songs are kind of like that "one guy" at a party: you'll listen to a story if he's funny, but he's got your ear if he's fucked up. Then to hear them resurrect it, to hear Peck gasping between notes, just awesome.

'Orlan Dorf' is the second half of Side A. Like 'Demon Loaf', it's a trio affair. Unlike 'Demon Loaf', its first two minutes sound like a bolt smashing about in a dryer. Effect-heavy tuba sputters to life. Blancarte's strings force something, if not melodic, more rhythmic. Peck responds with heaves of his own. Blancarte's transition to pizzicato and his repetitive patterns - especially with Peck's melodic follow - may sport a brisker pace than you usually find with this band but it's every bit as minimal. Peck's follow with phrases like glissandos seems particularly inspired. Then, right on cue, they tear the whole damn thing apart. Not brick by brick, but bone by bone. And it's pretty obvious, much of this band's famed "darkness" stems from its total rejection of sentimentality. It's not to say that the music is uninspired. On the contrary, so much of it is that it's strange and fascinating how easy it is for them to abandon great ideas, to abandon great riffs for something else, and sometimes for nothing. Absolute silence. At first, it can seem like a miss on their part. Like, damn, wish you had that one back, right? But then they do it again. And again. And again. And we haven't even touched 'The Huldrefish' yet. This is the real evil shit. Not the corpse paint or the double low-end, seriously effected assault. It's this lack of sentimentality. But I've heard chefs talk about stuff like this. It's simple: in a multi-course meal, it's not just about timing. The hard truth is it can't all be delicious. Too many consecutive delights and it becomes rich ... and then fatty ... and then sickening ... You have to keep the tastebuds alive with unpatterned hits of dissonance - too spicy, too sour, too bitter - to keep the mouth interested. Probably, it's the same with the ear.

'The Huldrefish'. Based on an old tale from "the Northern Seas," this sidelong track finds The Gate once again playing with Tim Dahl (electric bass) and Nate Wooley (trumpet & amplifier) - comprising the same quintet that recorded last year's Stench.  In fact, 'The Huldrefish' is a Stench-session holdover.  I'll say this: people call bands "polarizing" all the time and, often, they aren't so.  But you're either all the way down with this stuff or you're out.  'The Huldrefish' is a through-composed monster.  Five minutes of near-nod riffs melt into figures like latter-day Scott Walker.  Then a bass pattern repeats into near silence; from which, crawls Peck's tuba. Blancarte's bass returns close behind.

"It must be a huldrefish, thought one of the boatmen, for rumour had it that that lake was one of those which had a double bottom ..."

Eventually, the song manifests a kinetic web of dueling bassists and effected horns, Peck still producing bull snorts and Wooley rising with cosmic howls.  Osborne rides in throughout with snaps to the cymbals.

Then it returns to that funereal doom.  Much of Sunn O)))'s sound can be found here.  In doom metal, what you don't get in speed and dexterity must be made up for in tone.  'The Huldrefish' is the most recent and best showing of steps toward tonal mastery.

A quality, quality release.  Highly recommended.

*Recorded at Menegroth, The Thousand Caves, December 2012.

*The Players:
  • Dan Peck, tuba & effects, composition
  • Tom Blancarte, electric upright bass
  • Brian Osborne, percussion
  • Tim Dahl, electric bass on 'The Huldrefish'
  • Nate Wooley, trumpet & amplifier on 'The Huldrefish'

In the Sea – Henry Crabapple Disappear (Astral Spirits, 2015) ***** 

It begins as a Magic Band outtake. The song is 'Perpendicular', and Tristan Honsinger does his best Captain, beginning the track with the lyric Goat (or God?) on a mountain / River through the trees … Moments later, he repeats the band’s name twice before delivering a staccato Not.To.Be.Per.pen.dic.ular, as Joshua Zubot introduces as many erratic patterns on violin as Isaiah Ceccarelli does on the kit. The vocals appear to be completely improvised; and they are – to borrow from Honsinger: feverish – erish – erish – erish … Occasionally they offer finite images; often, they’re polysyllabic gibberish. Textures of jazz. And important ones. When Honsinger finally reaches for his bow, his arco draws Zubot into intersecting lines, compelling counterpoint. The song ends with a nice imitation by Honsinger’s bow of his voice to start the piece. Indeed, it’s a song of right angles; it stands. And true to its title, even the supposed parallels are undercut by harmonic and theoretical dissonance. For all its improvised madness and vocal deliveries stinking of Beefheart, this isn’t an abstraction of the blues but of classical music. Consider this then the overture.

I’m going to ruin this for you. Because I just want to talk about it. The next song - or the beginning to the whole mad riddle following the aforementioned overture – is called 'Chicken and Peas'. Here’s the thing: this song is four minutes and fifty-one seconds long. And for about 4:20 it’s a tasty collection of limber motifs. Any one, every one almost, primed to pop off the staff to start a song of its own. But with seconds left in the track, Honsinger takes a few exaggerated breaths, and finally speaks. It’s a grunt turned snarl, followed by a measure of fevered vocal nonsense. And then a few-seconds long arco/drum sprint concluding with a single burly drag by Nicolas Caloia across the double bass.

The song’s explicit relation to food is apt.

Every motif a musical ingredient. To build a fine meal with several components and as many different techniques over the course of hours, to watch it be consumed in a matter of minutes. 'Chicken and Peas' takes a four-hour dinner – from slaughter to service - and tells its story in four minutes.

And then, Pot.

Back into the kitchen? Or the restroom? A pot in which to send the waste of food just consumed? To this point, In the Sea has demonstrated fairly well its anger and intelligence and righteous chops. On 'Pot', they reveal their elegance. There are moments on 'Pot' where you begin to suspect that this could be a five-star album. They can go here, you say. And to leave the track here: in third position, not even midway through the album. They may want a chase or they may want a fight, but for the listener, they set a bar.

'Time Lost' follows. On the heels of a song called 'Pot', it could take on a more psychedelic connotation. But in truth, the song has much more of a youth-is-wasted-on-the-young feel. In mapping life, the track seems especially biologically accurate concerning pace. It slogs in, leaving the listener with a wonder that quickly turns to thirst for growth. However, when the song’s fever pitch back-half concludes, you’re left wondering where all the “years” went. Its arco assault ends the album’s first half and you almost don’t know quite how it got there, how it got so charged. In the Sea pull this trick off throughout the album: building, perhaps without plans, but with such structure and attention to detail that it’s clearly the work of a collective machinist; the magic: that its bolts never show.

'Rattlesnake Den' begins the second half, and Honsinger has much to say in this one. The thing that is both unfortunate and thrilling at once: it’s not in any known language. What follows is some deeply complex playing with enough dissonance that I can safely say they weren’t aiming at all for casual listening converts. 'Rattlesnake Den' is for the connoisseur. The playing and precision here is absolutely without weakness. The middle section, the one that just builds and builds and builds – as I mentioned with Time Lost – contains movements that are so slight that it hits like a hammer before you ever realize it had risen above a sting. These are some of the thrills this album provides, those moments of revisiting movements to answer questions like How’d they do that? How’d they get there? Before long, Ceccarelli deconstructs the rhythm and it turns into something almost monastic. Then, Honsinger bites. The band reinterprets his voice to close. Zubot rises in this one - literally and figuratively. Caloia’s consistent punishing: the heartbeat beneath the floorboards.

335 BLW follows Rattlesnake Den, and it’s a merry chase.

If 335 BLW is coffee, Back Stab is the cigarette.
There is a scene. And the stabbing is relentless.

And Breadcrumbs.

Is there a more perfect song title to end this album? I think perhaps not; nor a more perfect lament.

So who is the Henry Crabapple of our story? In the Sea gets everything right, dispelling immediately with the linear oceanic adventure their name suggests by placing us on a mountaintop in the opening bars of the first track. Is he then another bit of Honsinger’s gibberish, a statement of percussive syllables more about becoming aural than literal? Likely. By the end of Breadcrumbs, it does sound as if he’s slipped beneath the waves. A ship then? (Did In the Sea dispel with the notion of water after all?) Or maybe he’s already gone and disappeared, and the entire thing is one massive eulogy. Is the band’s name a nod to another body of “water” perhaps? A “pool”? The ICP? Could be.

None of this speculation matters at all of course, but that’s the thrill of the album and of listening to music in general. And yes, this cassette is packaged in the standard Astral Spirits format: band, title, edition number and small graphic on the cover. In the past, I admit, I haven’t paid much attention to the covers beyond thinking that AS releases were handsome in their near-uniformity and refined understatement. But HDC’s graphic not only looks very much like a hurricane, it is a spiral that speaks to the cyclical nature of the album as a whole. Listen to the final blurts of Honsinger and especially the final “false bottom” notes in Breadcrumbs. These notes drop away in a very unusual pattern and location. They can seem like an unfinished idea. But the remaining fifteen seconds of silence leaves little doubt. To make sense of it all you must tie these notes to Perpendicular and begin the whole thing again. And again. And again. And that, to me, is the very definition of a five-star album.
  *Recorded at Hotel2Tango by Thierry Amar, Montreal, Quebec, March 28, 2013.
  *The Players:
  •   Tristan Honsinger, cello/voice
  •   Nicolas Caloia, double bass
  •   Joshua Zubot, violin
  •   Isaiah Ceccarelli, drums


Richard said...

Thanks for the Astral Spirits reviews, Joel. They were very enjoyable and well-written.

I've been interested in The Gate since I first heard them compared to Sunn O))), who have long been a favorite of mine. I don't have this album, but I do have a previous effort and the comparison is a good one.

I do have the In The Sea album and was lucky enough to see Honsinger, Caloia and Zubot in concert. It was wonderful to see Honsinger play and the 5 stars are well-deserved.

Dan S. said...

Yes, I meant to comment the other day that the exuberance of your reviews made me finally pull the trigger and order these tapes (also, it spurred a thrift store rummage spree to find a tape deck to hook up to my receiver...$4 dollars later, we're in business!)