Ohio-based guitarist Mike Sopko should be better known than he is. He’s recorded a wide variety of music, from acoustic singer-songwriter material to jazz, improv, and even avant-garde metal. He’s worked with Bill Laswell a few times, first in a trio with former Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen, then in a larger ensemble featuring two other guitarists — Dominic James and Raoul Björkenheim — and drummer Hideo Yamaki. For their third encounter, Tyshawn Sorey is behind the kit.
The five tracks on On Common Ground feel improvised, but never so loose that they lose all meaning or structure. The opener, “Upward Collapse,” is a sustained explosion, almost in the same realm as Fushitsusha or Musica Transonic. Laswell’s bass is a thick, gooey wad in the middle of the mix; Sorey assaults the kit with boundless energy, like he’s taking the crashing cymbals and hit-everything-twice explosiveness that a metal drummer might deploy in the final half-minute of a drum solo but maintaining it for nine minutes. Sopko’s guitar, meanwhile, is a distorted wave of electronic fury, millions of notes flying by like shrapnel, tearing through everything in their path.
As the album progresses, it alternates between moments of calm and violent eruptions. “Oracle” and “Parascience” give the bassist plenty of room to roam, in a kind of dub-funk fusion, while Sopko rises and falls, sometimes extremely quiet and other times shredding madly. Sorey’s aggressiveness is breathtaking. He’s an absolute master of the creative possibilities of percussion, so to hear him playing this kind of thunderous material is inherently fascinating and somewhat terrifying.
“Incantation,” the longest track on the record at nearly 14 minutes, begins in near-silence, with soft clicks and hisses like the most subtle of ambient or lowercase compositions. It gradually builds to an In a Silent Way-esque groove, before climbing into an even higher gear and rocketing skyward, a monster jam worthy of the best ’70s hard rock. Things wind down with “Equation,” which has a mellow feel at first, before devolving into pinging, skronky improv for several minutes, finally exploding one last time before the album ends.
A record like this is easy to ignore; it seems like “just” a noisy, aggro three-way jam from artists whose pace never seems to flag. But in fact, if you pause long enough to give it several careful listens, front to back, it becomes an extraordinarily complex set of music worthy of serious consideration.