It’s been a productive year for Dutch saxophone-drums duo Dead Neanderthals, coming off the March release of their fourth album Polaris on Utech Records, and the recent limited-edition self-released cassette Meat Shovel, both of which saw the pair—saxophonist Otto Kokke and drummer René Aquarius—embrace a different kind of intensity to the machine-driven, rapid-fire blastbeat pummel of their previous efforts.
In my interview with the band conducted earlier this year (and readable in Burning Ambulance #6), they expressed their desire to go where the mood takes them, rather than follow any set path or expectation for what a grindcore/jazz duo is supposed to sound like. Certainly anyone coming to their music for the first time with any of their 2013 releases would be hard-pressed to hear what’s explicitly “grindcore” in their sound; comparisons to the “fire music” of John Coltrane and Rashied Ali seem far more appropriate than Napalm Death, or even John Zorn‘s experiments in the genre. But go back to the beginning (which isn’t all that far back, considering they’ve only been a band for three years) and their evolutionary trajectory, from experiments in playing grind with jazz instrumentation to their current idiosyncratic jazz-ish racket played with an extreme metal (or extreme anything) sensibility, is easy to grasp, and exhilarating to follow.
Another topic broached in that interview was the duo’s openness to collaboration, which can be read as an expression of their confidence as a band with an identity all its own. As I write this, they’re touring Europe with American guitarist Nick Millevoi, and with me they discussed the planned release of collaborative recordings made with noise/drone artist Machinefabriek and London-based sax terrorist Colin Webster. The first of these to see release is their session with the latter, recorded late last year and released this week on London label Raw Tonk and France’s Gaffer Records under the title …And It Ended Badly. It’s worth noting that the record is credited to Dead Neanderthals alone, not Dead Neanderthals & Colin Webster. In the liner notes, Webster is listed as one of the band—the first in line, in fact. One might have expected his presence to disrupt the duo dynamic that Kokke and Aquarius have developed, but it’s remarkable how he blends right in, as if he’s always been there.
The six tracks in this set are not explicitly titled; rather, a six-line poem or sextain on the back cover implies that each line titles each track in succession. That seems the best way to go once the record starts playing: “There Was a Great Battle” is the opener, and the title says it all, really, as Kokke’s and Webster’s saxophones duel over the tumultuous background of Aquarius’ percussion. It’s a clash of styles, too, with one sax attempting a melody akin to Albert Ayler‘s “Ghosts” while the other dances manically around it. The second track, “Weapons Drawn, Blood Spilled” is more directly oppositional, the two horns alternately blurting and wailing at each other while Aquarius punctuates the scene with tension-building cymbal rides and emphatic bass drum thumps.
The third track, “Both Sides Fought Bravely,” begins with a mournful duet, a soundtrack to mental images of mass casualties in the battlefield, a pause in the action that breaks a third of the way through as the conflict flares up, Kokke and Webster each responding in kind to the other’s attacks. Then, in the final two minutes, Aquarius contributes a surprise twist when he launches into a 4/4 metallic breakdown. Another curveball is thrown with the light tinkle of bells and snare-rapping that mark the beginning of track four, “It Went On for Days,” though the trio soon bring it back to the doleful atmosphere of the previous number, yet with a more sinister vibe, and an anger that builds steadily throughout.
The three players get more playful on the fifth track, “And It Ended Badly,” breaking off into their own solo runs played simultaneously, a cacophonous blend that still maintains a certain narrative cohesion: a slow-build beginning, the middle’s thrill of the chase, and a satisfying end that leads into the disarmingly smooth sax lines that open sixth and final track “And in Tears, of Course.” If saxophones could sing, this would be a torch song of sorts, both horns united in dismay at the carnage that surrounds them, though the insistent, impatient martial beat of conflict is never out of earshot. The battle might be over when this record’s 32 minutes are up, but Dead Neanderthals‘ war goes on. And if their skirmishes with fellow mercenaries result in more music like this, long may it last.
Stream the first track from …And It Ended Badly below: