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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

KVL - Vol 2 (Astral Spirits, 2023)

By Ian Lovdahl

I know it's all the rage these days, but I can't bring myself to care too deeply about the alleged dangers of A.I. Yes, artificial intelligence is extremely interesting and the endless speculation over the years has brought plenty of entertainment, but I can't help but think that some prognosticators allow their fears to run too far off the leash. Naturally, I'll change my tune when album reviewers are replaced by robots, but until then, I'm content to sit back and observe the development of this increasingly bizarre and fascinating technology. For now, I'll take my devious electronics in my jazz, which is what Chicago trio KVL have to offer in spades on their second album Vol. 2.

Opener (and possible play on words) "Pink Void" has the warbling charm of an underwater arcade, buzzing with low-key electronics and mellow keys. An animated bass murmurs faithfully in the background while Kirshner's crisp cymbal and snare pop like kernels, meditating on the rhythm when Van Duerm's electric piano completes the trio. The pianist's fingers stumble knowingly across the keyboard, unpredictable yet stress-free. A brief feedback-like whine gives way to a soaring (almost blaring) Mellotron horn that triumphantly echoes throughout the valleys of the piece, hinting at more electronic experimentation to come later in the album. The relaxed air starts blowing sideways with gusts of confusion on "Bandwidth Prana", as the electro-piano stutter-steps out of the way of combative drums and obtuse bass. The tone squeezed out of the keys brings to mind the ambient jazz/hip-hop producer Rejoicer, as they shimmer with hazy joy seeking sunlight. Suddenly, someone turns a knob and a sharp pseudo-organ sound emits from the amplifier, soloing like a distorted Keith Emerson on top of the wavy melody. Although the music is definitely jazz, the occasional prog and ambient outbursts adds layers of complexity to the threesome's work.

The third track "Absent Crash" comes about as close to IDM as I could imagine. As the percussion flutters like a breakbeat and electronic keys interject with the steady bass, I'm instantly reminded of Squarepusher's early output; while not a one-for-one comparison, the spirit of Music Is Rotted One Note sings through these songs. Eventually, the band settles down into an organ-driven jazz trio by the back half of the piece, which leads into the fully liberated jazz excursion "Percival's Dilemma". No bones about it – for a short period, this is KVL at their most free, and it makes for a nice detour from their excellent cloudy basement jazz. Perhaps the most interesting set of tracks appear towards the end of Vol. 2as the "Interconnectivity Suite", a five-part journey through augmented reality. The first part opens with a nineties operating system jingle as warping synthetic sounds force the organic components to repeat their parts ad nauseam. Lux's bass takes over the melody in the breezy second part that leads into a daring dub interlude with a groovy drum beat. The band makes micro-adjustments to mix in disparate influences like dub and electronica without sacrificing their unique jazz trio identity; in fact, the seamless genre additions serve to build upon KVL's brand of jazz, however you'd like to categorize it. Coming together with a vengeance at the end, the group jams with progressive flair as they button up their suite with the ever-reliable soft chords of the keyboard; a dynamic end to a satisfyingly-deep record.

Easily one of my favorite new albums of 2023, KVL seriously impresses with their sophomore outing. It shouldn't be any surprise, considering the notable pedigree of the players, but this trio brings a sincerely needed voice that speaks to their idiosyncratic attitude and approach to jazz. I'm looking forward to listening to Vol. 2on vinyl soon and will definitely revisit the LP throughout the rest of the year. As music technology grows in scope, I'd like to see an A.I. try to generate an album like this; sure, a robot might be able to ape some instruments and rhythm, but I doubt it could replicate the warm-blooded verve pumping its heart out each and every second of the record.