Click here to [close]

Friday, May 15, 2020

Astroturf Noise - Astroturf Noise (577 Records, 2020) ***½

By Martin Schray 

Two years ago, after listening predominantly to free jazz and avant-garde music for about ten years, I somehow became tired of this kind of music. So, I rediscovered different genres that I had neglected: hiphop, delta blues, soul, new wave/post-punk and …. country and bluegrass. Digging the music of Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Del McCoury, Flat & Scruggs and many others was really fun. I’ve always liked American roots music for its sophistication, the carefully elaborated arrangements, the outstanding musicianship, the women’s angelic singing and the fact that it has always carried the traditions of melody and lyrical subtlety. Unfortunately, there are only few albums that have tried to bring (free) jazz and country/bluegrass together successfully. There’s Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (what a cover !), on which he improvises over songs like “I’m An Old Cowhand“, Willie Nelson has recorded two albums with Wynton Marsalis (Nelson has always had an inclination to jazz), Bill Frisell has released some excellent country/jazz albums (e.g. Good Dog, Happy Man and Music IS), John Zorn has included country snippets on some of his post modernist Naked City albums and Susan Alcorn has been rooting down the sound of the pedal steel guitar in the free jazz world (for example, on Invitation To A Dream with Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark or on Max Johnson’s In The West).

That’s why is was really intrigued when I heard about Astroturf Noise, a project by Sam Day Harmet (mandolin/effects), Sana Nagano (violin/effects), Zach Swanson (bass), which was also supposed to exist at the intersection of free improvisation, effects-heavy noise music, and American folk traditions. For their self-titled debut they are augmented by guest artists Billy Martin (percussion, effects) and Sarah Bernstein (violin, effects). From the very beginning the clash of the two genres is very weird (in a positive way). While the bass tries to keep a steady 2/4 time, the mandolin and the violin are warped and a bit off. This effect doesn’t only result from the askew playing but mainly from the use of a lot of effects, particularly after the melodies have been introduced. Sometimes it sounds as if Sun Ra  had snuck into a bluegrass band's rehearsal barn. In “Metropolitan Special“ the group combines its bluegrass drive with the destructive power of early Arto Lindsay albums, but tracks like “Blue Comet Bankruptcy“ are also reminiscent of John Zorn’s Filmworks series and Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes melodies. Furthermore, I was also reminded of pinball machines in a gambling den and, last but not least, the aliens in Mars Attacks!. (It might seem a bit ironic that bluegrass music is fatal for them).

Astroturf Noise is definitely a wild mix, Country music purists will probably turn up their noses. Then again it’s really an innovative attempt to do something new. Well worth a try.

Astroturf Noise is available on vinyl, as a CD and as a download.

You can buy the album and listen to it here:


Captain Hate said...

I'm listening to this now and I think they effectively accomplish what Eugene Chadbourne has tried to do without irritating me. This kind of reminds me of what a group called The Horseflies tried to do before they crashed and burned or otherwise just disappeared. Charlie Parker loved the stories of country music, I assume for their guileless honesty, and to trespass on that is to walk a narrow line. These guys do well and I look forward to potential further explorations in this genre.

Martin Schray said...

Eugene Chadbourne is a good reference, Captain. These guys really do well, its a good album, no question. But there's room for improvement as well.

Sherm Clow said...

Check out Bryan and the Haggards… Jon Irbagon is part of the group