Don’t let the name fool you: Yellow Springs, Ohio’s New Atlantis Records is no space for hippy-drippy new age nonsense. Spearheaded by Ed Ricart, an electric guitarist (and percussionist, and composer) with a penchant for the avant, the label’s releases tend to inhabit the liminal space between free jazz and free rock, where it’s difficult to tell in what genre the sounds find their grounding. Perhaps that’s the point—to hell with genre! This is about musicians and their instruments and expressing the fire at their fingertips, whatever the methodology. Still, despite their constraints, genre terms are useful descriptors for the constructive elements in music, even that which defies easy filing. And in the case of these three recent releases on New Atlantis, the electric guitar is the common ingredient that provides an “in” for those versed in the freakier fringes of rock’s and jazz’s wilder reaches.
Philadelphia guitarist Nick Millevoi (a musician I’ve reviewed here before) joined Ricart, Travis Laplante and Ches Smith to form the Ricart/Millevoi Quartet, who released their debut, Haitian Rail, last summer. Millevoi’s split musical personality—his drone-based solo work versus the cyclical riffage of his Tzadik-signed fire rock trio Many Arms—coalesces here in partnership with Ricart’s electric bass, Laplante’s saxophone and Smith’s nimble percussion across six focused improvisations, each with distinct halves, where every member has opportunity to show off their strengths (captured beautifully here by heavy-rock-oriented engineer Jason LaFarge, a veteran of sessions with Swans and Gnaw, among others).
“Linive” plunges in at the deep end with all four musicians working in unison, Millevoi and Laplante dancing around each other on the dissonant riff, the din only breaking for breath halfway through with a two-minute drum solo that keeps up the momentum. “Primitive Rings” leads with a series of piercing sax and buzzing synth tones before Smith holds the floor in the second half with his crashing and rolling. “Ankadreman” is marked by Laplante’s softly played lament that morphs into a raging wail against the storm, the rhythm section thundering along as Millevoi’s guitar slashes like lightning flashes; the track then cuts inside the squall with a string-shredding guitar solo. Ricart’s super-fuzzed bass is the initial hook on “Not a Memory”, which turns into a showcase of Laplante’s literally breathtaking sax technique, while “Solarism” blasts forth with an incendiary attack, all four members’ torches ablaze. And set closer “Coqueternions” brings it all back around, coming across as a mournful reprise of the opening track that breaks into staccato, jagged pieces. Of these three records, Haitian Rail is likely to be the easiest for the adventurous rock fan to get into, but it’s by no means easy listening.
Chamaeleon, a collaboration between British saxophonist Paul Dunmall and the Edward Ricart Quartet, is the most conventionally “jazz” of these releases, at least in format and presentation. There’s a smoky modal vibe running throughout this six-track set, but the quintet’s modus operandi is most definitely deviation from that well-beaten path. “Forager,” one of two 20-minute tracks on the LP, finds Dunmall’s sax and Herb Robertson‘s trumpet entwined on an exploratory melodic line—followed in time by Ricart’s chiming guitar—that intermittently veers onto sudden sidetracks, though bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Andrew Barker keep things upright. The other long cut here, “Elliptic Operators,” comes later in the record and unfurls at a slower pace, the musicians expressing a more intimate feel for each other’s place in the sound. Between and around these focus pieces, two roughly nine-minute tracks (the searing “Excavator” and the restless, noisy closer “Beelining,” the latter of which adds some chirping flute and synth stabs to the mix) and two sub-four-minute numbers (smouldering warm-ups “Real Orbital” and “Blind Source”) round out a fully improvised session that displays remarkable cohesion.
“Intense electro-acoustic jazz freedom” is the most succinct description I can muster for the expansive territory charted by New York-based trio TOTEM> on their second long-player, Voices of Grain. Comprising upright bassist Tom Blancarte, drummer Andrew Drury and guitarist Bruce Eisenbell, the leaderless group saw their previous record Solar Forge released by ESP-Disk, which should give some indication of their sonic proclivities.
Four of the seven tracks here cross the 10-minute mark, two of them breaking 15 minutes—such as opener “Genosong,” where the trio burrow through claustrophobia-inducing tunnels of sound, Eisenbell’s guitar constructing obtuse fragments of riffs and anti-melodies ahead of Blancarte’s propulsive bass and Drury’s scrabbling drums, and the subaquatic drones and scrapes of “Written In The Body,” which could be a field recording from the hold of a sinking ship, every rumble and creak heralding an unfortunate end. The rest is just as unsettling: jittery guitar skips between stereo channels on “Counter Memory,” while “Post-Repeating” allows Eisenbell and Blancarte to let loose with their fret-wrangling. The shorter tracks are more direct, giving the impression of prepared composition over improvisation. “Towards Jouissance” could score the raising of the Titanic, or its demise against that mountain of ice. The creeping, droning dread of “Message Without a Code” evokes horror-movie scenes. And closer “Silence On Its Road” swaps the record’s dominant harmolodic tendencies for a more tightly wound experience: bass strings scraped to a crescendo set against a background of tension-building percussion and the contrast of a melancholy, meandering guitar figure. It’s a difficult, uninviting sound world TOTEM> have constructed here, but not an unrewarding one.