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CD Feature/ POW Ensemble: "Homage To Hazard Live, Amsterdam 2008"

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"In fact, security killed the cat, now how about that?" sings Han Buhrs in "Security," from the latest release by the POW Ensemble, Homage To Hazard Live, Amsterdam 2008.  The boys and girls of the POW Ensemble could never be accused of a lack of curiosity or adventurousness, that much is certain, and this new live recording documents their deepening, expanding musical language with aplomb. Formed by Luc Houtkamp in 2001, the POW Ensemble have, over three album releases and hundreds of concerts, continuously juggled, fused and juxtaposed two seemingly opposed sound worlds: the "strict" realm of the computer and the "swirling ether" of improvised music. Or was that the "swirling ether" of the computer and the "strict" realm of the improvised? Make no mistake, gentle listeners: this music is really all about live performance. It's about taking risks and occasionally falling on your face. This was the idea behind the Homage To Hazard concerts: to celebrate the uncertain, the frightening, the potenially hazardous.

Typically, the POW Ensemble relies on a flexible instrumentation that exploits the members' varied musical assets for the different projects which they undertake.  Performing in the Homage To Hazard concerts we find Han Buhrs, vocals and electronics; Guy Harries on vocals, flute, fife, laptop and keyboards; Wolter Wierbos, trombone and vocals; Nina Hitz, cello; Luc Houtkamp, laptop, tenor saxophone, vocals and electronics.

The record kicks off with the group improvisation "Het Behoeft Uiteraard...", a dense, atmospheric tangle between the two laptops, cello, flute, trombone and voices. Geiger counter-like ticks from the laptops and sustained voices form a bed for occasional rhythmic bursts from the trombone and what sound like processed cello scrapes.  The group achieves a beautiful balance of static texture and subtly shifting harmonic changes. And check out the fantastic vocal layering toward the end! Successful live improvisation is so frequently a question of balance, blend and timbre, knowing when to react and go with the flow; when to stick out like a sore thumb, and when to just shut up and listen. This first track is bread-and-butter POW: exciting, subtle group improvisations.

"This Is To Those" is one of the best tracks on the album. After an extended introduction with Han Buhrs vocalizing, his sound piped through the laptops, the group launches into a hypnotic vamp and sweetly sings, "this is to those standing aloof, the ones that bow in the wind but never move." Buhrs' volcanic voice eventually steps out front and picks up the lyric, giving the sardonic words an angry, bitter edge. Guy Harries's track, "The Loser," takes a Shel Silverstein poem and turns it into a very serviceable pop track.

"One, Two, Maybe Three" is a wondrously strange, fluttering atmosphere with a dirge-like pace and lyrics that come off as part sunny-day acid trip, part carnival barker. The middle section gives the group another chance to stretch out in some improvisation. As usual, their oscillation between more straightforward song forms and very open improvisation (an oscillation that often occurs, as here, within the same piece) makes a nice balance both in concert and on record.

The group improvisation in the first two thirds of "Mood Swings" also makes it one of the stronger tracks on the album. After an extended sax introduction, the other instruments enter the conversation one by one, building to several climaxes. Again, the blend of different timbres from the computers, the vocal processing, and the gestures of the acoustic instruments are the primary interest here. The POW do this very well, creating many contrasting and exciting atmospheres through the several introductory sections of "Mood Swings." It is only after the sixth minute that you feel like the track actually gets underway; unusual, and very cool.

Homage To Hazard ends with "It's A Risky World," the only previously recorded track in this set. Ending the disc with this silly romp, regarding three animals with not inconsiderable pluck who nevertheless come to unfortunate ends, feels just right. You could say that the roots of the POW Ensemble lie in four different, but interrelated musical worlds; those of blues and jazz, free improvisation, modern concert music and electronica. The playfulness of the POW Ensemble, and their willingness to bring some absurdity and whimsy to what is so frequently the all-too-serious world of modern music is certainly to be welcomed.

 

By Chad Langford. Visit Chad's homepage at www.chadlangford.com

Homepage: POW Ensemble

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