by Phil Freeman
Violinist Earl Maneein used to be in the group Resolution15, a metal band where his instrument played the role a guitar would typically assume. (Read a 2013 interview with Maneein here.) Now, he’s leading Seven)Suns, a string quartet with all the traditional instruments—two violins, viola, and cello—but whose music is decidedly modern and, yeah, hyper-aggressive at times, but also starkly beautiful. In addition to several of his own compositions, Maneein, second violinist Amanda Lo, violist Fung Chern Hwei, and cellist Jennifer DeVore perform versions of the Dillinger Escape Plan‘s “43% Burnt,” Mr. Bungle‘s “Quote Unquote,” Twenty One Pilots‘ “Heathens,” and Arvo Pärt‘s “Fratres” (remixed by Raz Mesinai). Two pieces on their debut album For the Hearts Still Beating, “In Full View” and “Yama,” are reworkings of Resolution15 songs.
“43% Burnt” is a breathtakingly complex piece of music from the Dillinger Escape Plan‘s most dense and hyperactive album, Calculating Infinity. It shifts with extreme rapidity from downtuned, distorted metal riffing to jazz fusion interludes to clean guitar melodies and back again, rarely allowing the listener time to fully process one set of choices before another is presented. (A later DEP album was called Option Paralysis, for good reason.) Ironically, by transposing the music for string quartet, Seven)Suns have brought its beauty to the fore. With the original’s jackhammering drums and roaring vocals sliced away, the melodies are free to flow around and into and over each other, and yes, it’s still extremely fierce, but no more so than a piece by, say, Elliott Carter.
That piece is easily the most challenging of their interpretations of rock and metal songs (including their own older material). “Quote Unquote” incorporates the squeaking of toy ducks, as well as passages of hillbilly-esque fiddling, but ultimately it’s a more conventionally structured rock song to begin with, so its jumps are less sudden and more predictable; you can hear them coming. Only in its final minute does it devolve into atmospheric abstraction, with the cello maintaining a steady three-note figure as the violins and viola scrape and zing.
The two-part “Rikers: Songs of the Voiceless” is one of the most powerful pieces on the album. The violin melodies have an almost Eastern European crying quality, stinging and jabbing like the work of Bela Bartók or Leoš Janáček, but particularly in the second part of the suite, “Shunyata,” a bouncing rhythm is present that keeps the music anchored, preventing it from becoming the storm it has the potential to be. At times, particularly near its conclusion, it can feel like hurricane winds whipping around the listener’s house, but the final moments are calm and almost soothing, laying long notes over a simple pulse to take the piece out with simple, heartfelt emotion.
For the Hearts Still Beating begins and ends with versions of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres.” The opening “Ghost Mix” is two minutes of mostly electronics, while the closing, nearly 12-minute “Cassette Mix” is a more conventional reading of the extremely slow, minimal piece, but as its subtitle indicates, it’s distorted and blown-out sounding, rippling and fluttering at times in a way that recalls William Basinski‘s Disintegration Loops. At the midpoint of the piece, former Resolution15 drummer Kenny Grohowski (currently working with John Zorn‘s Simulacrum group) begins a manic death metal-style solo, swathed in hissing electronic noise. Seven)Suns continue on, unaffected; it’s almost as if a recording of Merzbow and Balázs Pándi is bleeding through from one layer of the tape to the next.
Seven)Suns‘ work is much more than “string quartet interprets metal songs.” That’s the easy hook, and the quickest entry point, but their incorporation of electronics, and the complexity of Maneein’s compositions and arrangements, make this group something very special and forward-looking. They should be embraced by the neo-classical community every bit as fervently as by adventurous metalheads.