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Saturday, April 15, 2023

SBATAX - Spires (Umlaut, 2023)

There isn’t much that I enjoy more than a really good sax/drums duo, and on “Spires” we get another terrific paradigm from Bertrand Denzler and Antonin Gerbal, now officially recording under the name SBATAX. This was also the title of their previous duo release in 2020, an album we enjoyed so much that it got reviewed by three of us and also featured in our year end lists. This is their third release as a duo - including their 2020 release as well as 2015’s  Heretofore - and Spires tracks nicely along the arc they set up with those albums, which is to say in the direction of a persistent and quickening dynamism. Aside from the squall they conjure, it’s that feel of trajectory to their work that makes them so compelling for me. There’s always a sense of something unresolved, something they’re striving towards within the tight frameworks they attend to. They consistently propose engaging solutions to their riddles, but the search never feels fully satisfied - nor is it ever fruitless, simply ongoing. It certainly isn’t due to a lack of effort. As on their prior release the duo absolutely burns down the house, delivering an impressively physical and engaging performance that is again both visceral and cerebral.

I’ll note that this is also the first recording by the duo with multiple tracks, this time they split the work into two roughly twenty minute sections called “Spires” and “Azimuths”. Given the intensity of the music, it is nice to have the option of a short reprieve if so desired, but these definitely feel like two halves of a whole. The two tracks are distinct white knuckle affairs - the former builds up a skronking intensity and the latter whips its phrases and rhythms into whirling vortices of sound. Gerbal keeps things going with light, rolling, busy rhythms. Denzler utilizes all the subtlety of a freight train, i.e. immediate high energy. He sketches out simple patterns that are then repeated several times, each with subtle differences in dynamics and/or phrasing. I’m reminded of someone with a ring full of keys trying to escape a rapidly burning building. Each key is tried several times before switching to a new one. Each attempt is more frantic than the one prior. Gerbal is non-stop motion and Denzler likewise takes very few pauses, which results in an acute sense of urgency. The sax mostly sounds in a low, honking register against the crisp, tight percussion and the duo excels at maintaining balance and finding the timbral sweet spot. There are definitely moments of skronk but they never lose control of the proceedings and the power is always focused where they want it to be. It’s another excellent release from a really intriguing duo.

Like their previous albums it took me several listens to really get a good feel for what the music is doing because it’s a such a whirlwind, and the totality is a lot heavier than the visceral thrill of its white hot flow - so I had to be sure not to miss the forest for the trees. Denzler and Gerbal both collectively and separately continue to produce some of the best music in the modern avant-garde, evidenced by their duo releases as well as their many, sometimes overlapping, projects. On that note Confront just this year released another of Denzler’s compositions called “ Low Strings ” and Gerbal’s أحمد [Ahmed] dropped an excellent new 7” late last year. Buy both and listen to them while we wait for their next Protocluster release.