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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Stemeseder & Lillinger - ANTUMBRA (PLAIST, 2024)

When it comes to earnestness, Christian Lillinger cannot be faulted – he takes himself and his vision extremely seriously, leaving him wide open to ridicule from anyone who chooses not to come along for his ride. Cruel YouTube and Instagram comments liken his drumming style to an epileptic fit, slandering his atonal music as “pretentious” and “shit.” Thankfully, he has developed a (velour) suit of armour, ignoring the sea of up-turned noses, pushing relentlessly forward, with no “trace” of a fuck to be given.

Releasing one album after another, numerous collaborations, running his own label (PLAIST), playing and conducting “research” in locations as diverse as Cairo and Johannesburg, how Lillinger has any time left to coif his signature pompadour in between is a mystery.

On the other hand, equally prolific keyboard/synth/electronics maestro Elias Stemeseder shuns all forms of social media, and opts rather to build his accolades in the shadows. Aside from playing in countless ensembles among the jazz scene in Germany, he has quietly collected esteemed titles such as the Deutscher Jazz Preis Keyboardist of the Year 2023, and fourth place in the El Intruso award for Keyboards, behind winner Jozef Dumoulin, (then Craig Taborn and John Medeski).

Together in the last year, Stemeseder and Lillinger have taken their duo concept on the road, performing and recording in a plethora of different studios globally: Mexico City, Athens (Georgia), New York, Cerkno, Bezau, Florence, and more. Last year the pair closed out Lillinger’s own PLAIST Festival in Munich with PENUMBRA: a polarising audio/visual assault on the senses, complete with colourful, strobing visuals by Mr & Mrs (Katrin) Lillinger. Not all patrons remained, to leave was their prerogative. Live, loud, experimental sounds, rumbling bass tones, and flashing pictures over busy, complicated music. Not for the faint of heart.

The second part of the trilogy, UMBRA, consists of guest collaborations, the duo inviting Peter Evans (piccolo trumpet), Russell Hall (bass), DoYeon Kim (gayageum), and Brandon Seabrook (banjo, guitar) to contribute. This sophomore album is more of an outlier in that regard, released on a different label (Intakt), featuring cover artwork that is not in line with the other two in the series. But as far as the concept is concerned, inside an Umbra shadow one experiences total occultation, not partial. There is a collective “wholeness” in standing behind the object and watching the light peek out from the sides, together.

It’s difficult to know what to expect when the press release for an album is so wordy it almost becomes redundant. Lillinger and Stemeseder have attempted to explain what happens when you listen to ANTUMBRA but the read itself is so complicated, it prompts an uneasy feeling of trepidation. Talks of “utopian vision," “folk musics," and beats that should be “unfailingly embodied while ambiguously gravitational” conjures up expectations of “…wtf?”

But this should not be a deterrent to ANTUMBRA – its description is just as labyrinthine and trippy as the music itself. Rest assured, you do not have to fully understand what is going on in order to be able to fully enjoy it.

Through acoustic instrumentation (gayageum, banjo and lautenwerk) together with creative sampling and sound curation, Lillinger and Stemeseder have elevated the production in ways previously unimaginable. It’s so far from an incoherent mish-mash; rather, a meticulously selected mosaic, deeply intense, for those prepared to open their hearts. Not to downplay the original, but ANTUMBRA is sonically and conceptually so well executed, it makes the former innovations of part one (PENUMBRA) sound like mere jam sessions in comparison.

The bells and glockenspiel plinks that open Lux create a kaleidoscopic, disjointed Fantasia, with Squarepusher-esque drums & bass. It creates a particularly reverb heavy space with abrupt, present drumming, that's warm, lush and expansive – you are inside it, and it is happening all around you. All that is left is to let it guide you. Drums and bells spontaneously drop out leaving only a mere solo “pluck” – the equivalent of an avant-garde trance breakdown. This weirdness is paired with a familiar and beautiful piano, and proceeds with distortion: it’s epically cinematic. There is even time for a reverse-bass womp-fest towards the end of the song, which has absolutely no right to be as phat as it is. And this is just one of a myriad of songs. One song, multiple worlds.

Drop Shadow offers a different type of portal: Lillinger’s impeccable drums leading the way through musical corridors with “splashes” of clustered, bright samples, accompanied by a carpet of strangely detuned instrumentation. This culminates in a finale that conjures up images of an intergalactic traffic jam, complete with imaginary whirring sirens and stuttering car horns.

Album closer Umbra Granularis another piece that packs an enormous punch for its 1:31 runtime. Gritty, thick, dark electronics thoughtfully paired with some kind of LSD-infused mandolin solo that sounds like That’s Amore after the drugs have well and truly kicked in.

The album artwork by Thissen and Katrin Lillinger is, therefore, completely appropriate: The combination of the light source hitting the head works itself brilliantly into the “Antumbra” concept. From Bandcamp: Antumbra (pre-shadow; from Latin ante, „before“, the region from which the occulting body appears entirely within the disc of the light source) . Translation for those who don’t speak high brow? “That’s some brain-bending stuff, man” . But is the light hitting the head, or is the head projecting the light? Through the act of opening the mind enlightenment can be achieved. This is not reserved for scholars. Give it a try, see how it makes you feel.

Indulge yourself in the full audio spectrum – the dynamic range extends all the way to the very peripherals of your speakers’ capability. One does not simply sit and listen to the noise, rather, one is consumed by it. It is a beautiful form of surrender, to be taken by the hand and trip-sitted through an ever evolving “utopia”. Sonic worlds are presented as snapshots, sometimes vast reverberant universes, sometimes tiny rooms with tiny blips and taps. It is a glorious blend of organic vs mechanic, and one which, despite its weird overall nature, feels viscerally harmonious. The fact that it all comes together and somehow works is nothing short of a triumph.

Christian, Elias – voll geil gemacht, Jungs.


Anonymous said...

Piques my curiosity that’s for sure!

Brt the kid said...

I want to be enlightened!

Daniel Boeker said...

I'm so glad that you shed some light on this spectacular duo. Amazing music, you get the theoretical "blabla" or not. All three albums are amazing.