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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Spectral – Empty Castles (Aerophonic, 2018) ****

By Colin Green

Spectral -- Dave Rempis (alto and baritone saxophones), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones) – is an intriguing ensemble. Formed in 2012, when Rempis visited San Francisco, it was his first opportunity to perform with Ochs, known principally for his work with the ROVA saxophone quartet. Rempis had already played with Johnston when the latter visited Chicago. The collaboration was an instant success, with the three having a preternatural sense of anticipation and response and an ability to construct short and long-range forms spontaneously, described by the trio as “invisible architecture”: discovered structures, rather than imposed designs. There have been two previous albums on Rempis’ Aerophonic label: Spectral (2014) – tight counterpoint, conversational and sparring, full of livid detail and lush resonances -- and Neural Nation (2016), architecturally, on a grander scale with two long improvisations recorded during their 2015 tour of North America, replete with the kind of interlaced musical connections and reconnections suggested by the title.

Empty Castles presents a new challenge and is another instance of how an acoustic can shape performance. It was recorded in Magazine A-168, a 12,000-square foot concrete shell at Mare Island in Vallejo, California, originally a naval munitions bunker dating back to WWII. The vast structure magnifies everything and produces a stark reverberation, an echo almost as palpable as the scaled-up instruments themselves, resulting in the anomaly of a large space sounding positively claustrophobic. As the liner notes succinctly put it: “There was nowhere to hide during this recording session, every note staring back at its creators with fearless eyes”. But if the prospect of three improvisors being scrutinised by their phantom reflections for just over fifty minutes sounds constricting, think again.

Musically speaking, for every loss there’s a gain. There isn’t room for some of the more intricate ensemble passages of previous albums as the resonance creates rich clouds of overtones and blurred edges – a sound world of a different amplitude, more akin to Rothko than Pollock. The trio exploit such diffuse outlines in the opening ‘Dirt Angels’ as long notes and abbreviated gestures seep into one another in a slow-moving procession, setting gritty baritone against vibrant tenor and pinched trumpet. In ‘Luminal’, figures converge and separate, emerging from and engulfed by the fog, calling and answering as from a distance.

Everything is writ large in the unforgiving acoustic, where even the smallest modulation takes on enormous significance. In ‘Protest Portal’ split notes don’t just fracture but bifurcate, with reeds and brass compressed in layers like geological strata. Trills are an important part of the group’s repertoire, moving beyond a merely ornamental function and providing a further textural resource. When sustained in quivering triplicate during ‘This Is Not Vermont’ they create pulsating oscillations, squeezing out condensed saxophone squawks and trumpet cries. Individual weight and density also play a more prominent role. In ‘Splash Zone’ we hear the baritone’s earthy intonations, silvery trumpet, sprays from a distorted tenor, groups of vaguely syncopated notes, ending with a sombre chord in unison, each sonority pushed to the fore. On the other hand, this is an auditory zone which conceals as much as it reveals – the silhouettes and shadows of ‘Little Hymn’ seem to hover on the indeterminate border between the material and immaterial.

Silence can take many forms, and with Spectral pauses and momentary lulls are frequent, acting like line endings or paragraph breaks. On ‘Gravity Corridor’ however, among the imitation echoes, staccato tonguing and breathy smears, some of those silences feel like gaping holes, tinged with the instruments’ fading ghostly contours, a reminder that all sound has a temporary status and inevitable demise. Undoubtedly, there’s a feeling of displacement about much of this music – ‘Bunker’ presents each instrument sealed in its own hermetic halo, touching only at the edges – and an uneasy sense that under the indifferent gaze of doppelgangers a gap has opened up, isolating the musicians, which cannot quite be bridged. Yet there’s also an imposing grandeur to these bold constructions, as the title implies: analogous to castle ruins devoid of human presence. Sometimes, absence means more than just not being there.

The album can be previewed and purchased here.


Captain Hate said...

Nice review. I saw these guys perform before this was released in an acoustically lively space which they obviously put to good use. Talking with Rempis afterward he told me about where this was recorded so I snagged it immediately. This joins earlier recordings by Brotzmann, John Butcher and Charlotte Hug, to give three examples who come to mind, in oddly resonant settings that influence what is played.

Colin Green said...

I see that Butcher’s “Resonant Spaces” has just been made available as a download: