As far as I know, the New York State improv trio Borbetomagus—saxophonists Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter, and guitarist Donald Miller (who’s actually a New Orleans resident these days)—haven’t set foot in a recording studio in close to 25 years. Their last studio album as a trio was Seven Reasons for Tears, recorded in December 1987; the following year, they tracked Fish That Sparking Bubble, a collaboration with Swiss noise duo Voice Crack, and in 1992 they recorded a three-song 10″, Coelacanth, with Shaking Ray Levis. Everything they’ve released since—and there’s been a bunch of material released—has been live.
This year, though, they’re releasing a new studio album, with no special guests and no gimmicks. The Eastcote Studios Session is exactly what its title implies: a document of a day’s work in a London recording studio, with the group sounding as clean and powerful as they ever have. A limited release of 500 copies on the Dancing Wayang imprint, it contains two side-long tracks, “Dis” and “Dat,” adding up to just over 36 minutes of music. Order it straight from the label.
Borbetomagus don’t fuck around. “Dis” launches at full strength, with two different channels of wavering, scorching electronic noise beginning with no preamble or gradual introduction of elements. You’re here, they figure, so you must know what you’re getting into. One of the two sounds is almost certainly coming from Miller, and the other is the work of either Sauter or Dietrich. The third and final voice enters before the one-minute mark, and then they’re all squabbling at each other, but it’s impossible to be sure who’s doing what. Both saxophonists play through elaborate arrays of pedals that warp the sound of their horns utterly beyond recognition. Even the patterns of tones don’t shift and undulate in a way one would normally identify with a saxophone; it’s as if they’ve managed to not only alter the timbre and texture of the signal, but even their own breathing patterns. Indeed, the high-pitched sputtering shrieks and long, pulsing roars, coming from the far left and right corners of the stereo field (with a third, Metal Machine Music-esque steel-shredding sound in the middle that must by process of elimination be Miller), sound more like Autechre or Merzbow—or a collaboration between the two—than Albert Ayler or Peter Brötzmann. As the piece progresses, it seems to become more unified. It never sounds like any of them are listening to and/or responding to each other in the traditional sense, but an impression of collective effort, as differentiated from mere simultaneity, emerges. They’re contributing to one noise, rather than making three separate noises.
The second track, “Dat,” starts off even more aggressively than “Dis.” It’s skronkier, less post-human and more reminiscent of their 1980s and 1990s work, when they frequently really did sound like two (highly distorted) saxophonists and a guitarist, rather than three homicidally enraged machines of unknown origin. Fans of older albums like Snuff Jazz, Barbed Wire Maggots or Live in Allentown will find the version of Borbetomagus heard on this track immediately recognizable, and extremely welcome. It’s the burly, world-destroying roar, the sound of equipment being pushed far beyond its limits and collapsing in a heap of smoking circuitry, that’s been their trademark for well over three decades. But still, the elements separate at times, revealing individual moments that can astonish, no matter how familiar you are with these guys’ work. Just as a high-pitched skittering tone persists throughout “Dis” that may remind some of “VI Scose Poise” from Autechre‘s Confield, here’s a grinding sound at about the 13-minute mark of “Dat” (and continuing intermittently after) that could have come from an early Sunn O))) album.
What Borbetomagus do is so far from music in the conventional sense that it’s useless to discuss it in those terms. It makes more sense to evaluate it on the basis of its emotional effect on the listener. The Eastcote Studios Session will suck the breath from your lungs. It’ll jack up your heart rate. It’ll overload your brain and make you want to run around the room. It’s frankly exhilarating to hear people creating a sound this overwhelming, and doing so with such obvious, and contagious, glee.
Stream an excerpt from “Dis”: