San Diego-based group Those Darn Gnomes return with their third full-length Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow this week. For the unitiated, Those Darn Gnomes walk an idiosyncratic path where noise, metal, free jazz and improv seem to meet on equal footing.
The album starts with the briefest snippet, a small sample of the beginning of an old AM country song, before the blast furnace roars to life. “Birds” captures Those Darn Gnomes’ cacophonous, multi-pronged approach. There are fractured black metal arpeggios and flute, piano, hyperactive drums, vocal screeching and electronic manipulations and who knows what else. Despite the noise and samples, the guitar and drums tend to give everything a harried yet organic feel. The volume levels thrash back and forth as the ensemble displays a deft control of dynamics. Interestingly enough, by the midpoint of the eleven-minute track, the ensemble quiets down and engages in a sort of psychedelic, free-form folk approach. The drums occasionally pierce the softer music, and a moment or two of dubby echo add to the atmosphere. By the end of the piece, the volume begins to climb again, frantic drums sparring with a controlled walking bass line, a clash of tempos and meters that never the less seem to work well together.
Each song follows its own logic. There is a compositional method at work here, despite the obfuscation presented by the sheer extremity of the sounds present. The press materials claim there are “algorithmic compositional techniques derived from mold cultivation,” and while this might be impossible to verify, one can sense a logic at play in the rise and fall of the ensemble. The guitar and drums seem to point the way forward. The guitar work often provides a sense of focus in both the loud and quiet sections. The drums meanwhile engage in telepathic flurries, both responding to and leading the group. The style is often reminiscent of Sixties free jazz, although any sense of the burning spiritual yearning that characterized that era is certainly transformed here.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of the mystical present. The second piece, “Hall,” ends with an ominous drone, which is picked up at the beginning of the next, “A Cliff in Our Garden.” A clean vocal appears over the top of the swell and is soon joined by the guitar and drums. The sound achieved is a like a deep meditation, not defined by peacefulness but rather intensity. When the slowly building tension explodes, one almost expects a blast of lo-fi black metal, but is confronted with bursts of chaos and feedback instead.
The final track, “The Frail Stag (Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness and Desire),” is almost as confounding as its title. In some ways, it is the most “conventional” of the four pieces, yet it seems to capture the dying echoes of a disintegrating mathcore band. There are almost riffs, there’s almost a melody, there’s almost a beat, but it all falls apart again, the whole process narrated by both clean and death metal-inspired vocals. Midway through, and the electronics scoop up what’s left of the song and spit them back out with a surreal and noirish ambiance. For a moment, all we are left with is a sparse conversation between guitar and piano. When the volume comes back, it brings with it a melancholy drone that closes out the album.
To the outsider, noise music and free jazz might not be so different, but to fans these genres are usually worlds apart. Not only do Those Darn Gnomes successfully bring the two together, they do so with a grace and sense of dynamics that give the music a powerful atmosphere despite the overall abrasiveness of the material. The mesh of electronic and live instrumentation is seamless, and there is a depth present that rewards repeated listening. Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow is full of challenging material, but those who explore the nooks and crannies of the interzones between these experimental genres will no doubt be rewarded for their efforts.