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Tuesday, June 27, 2023

hÄK / Danzeisen - hÄK / Danzeisen (Karlrecords, 2023)

By William Rossi

I decided to pick up this album for two main reasons: the Karlrecords line-up is usually right up my alley and I was captivated by the photo chosen as the album cover, and I have to say that sometimes it's good to judge a book by its cover. The instrumental palette on this release is pretty peculiar: just drums and electronics, with the added kicker that some elements and parameters of hÄK's electronic setup are controlled by Danzeisen's kit through the use of triggers and sensors, creating some sort of hybrid human-machine instrument. 

I've always loved duos with just drums and another instrument, be it modern releases like the great collaborations between Chris Corsano and Mette Rasmussen or, going back to the classics, the wonderful Interstellar Space by none other than Coltrane and Rashied Ali, one of my favourite and most listened to albums in his discography. 
On the part of the melodic instrumentalist, I think missing a harmonic foundation forces them to think outside the box, giving them more freedom but also forcing them to make every single note count, it's a huge undertaking and few people are able to pull it off but when they do the result is an intimate performance where the voices and intentions of both musicians are loud, clear and, in some sense, raw, which can be difficult for some people to digest.

One would think that any instrument other than synths would be preferable to be the counterpoint to live drums, as synths can often be stiff, working with clocks, sequencers, arpeggiators, and can limit a drummer's possibilities substantially. Their particular approach, however, fixes all of these limitations, allowing for something that's actually very lively and free, with the added bonus of having the instruments so intertwined that two operate at perfect synchronicity: every crash hit after a pause hits harder since it's always partnered with a response from the electronics, when the kick slows down so do the electronics, when the drums get more intense so do the electronics, instantly and without having to re-adjust the way a human would.

I never felt while listening to this album that the music was cold or mechanical or constricted by the choice of instrumentation; it can be, however, quite harsh and alien at times and it could be a little too out-there for some, which is why the two musicians smartly chose to ease the listener into their sonic world by putting the two more physical tracks on the first half of the album. Even if the glassy bleeps or the electronic swarm of noisy electronics are not your cup of tea you'll find enjoyment in the tribal rhythms and the propulsive energy of "Aufwärts" and "Kurve (parts 1 and 2)", the perfect backdrop for a dystopian cyberpunk disco. 

After a while the non-musicality of the synths will start to make sense to you as you get accustomed to their internal logic and they will sound as natural to you as a saxophone or a trumpet would.

The third track "Abwärts" marks the beginning of the second, more abstract half, of the album: gone are the attempts at a constant beat, preferring constant tempo changes, abrupt stops followed by punky drum explosions as the modular synthesizer screams and squeals, eschewing all melody in an unrelenting attack on the listener that's utterly unpredictable from its busy start, to its weirdly soothing middle section and its explosive finale; the highlight of the entire release. 
The last track "Ungerade" is the logical conclusion to the madness, forgoing even the vitality of the tom-heavy drum rolls, at least for a while, and giving the spotlight to the arrhythmic alien sounds of the electronics, their high-pitched ringing and deep bass with subtle rises and drops in tension punctuated by fluid and elusive drumming, gently taking the listener to the end of the album's journey.

The music on this release inhabits some sort of musical no man's land: too free and not danceable enough for electronic music fans and not traditional-sounding enough for hardline free jazz fans; but we must never forget that the records and sound we put in such high regard today, be it Ornette Coleman or Peter Brötzman, were initially frowned upon by the so called "jazz purists". Stagnation is the death of art and this album brings something new to the table that I hope the duo will continue to build upon and that will inspire other musicians to put their own spin to this sound and way of playing. I'll be listening closely.

Available on vinyl and digital from Karlrecords