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CD Feature/ Tom Heasley & Toss Panos: "Passages"

img  Tobias

Tom Heasley’s music doesn’t need much explaining. That is saying quite a lot for a man who has filled his last three releases with nothing but the sound of his tuba and a didjeridoo. I can still remember the time when I had just moved from two decripit tiny rooms in Münster’s traditional district “Kreuzviertel” into the green and all the way to the outskirts of town. I was moving in with a good friend, sharing an entire house and a dog together and spending the days writing and the nights listening to music with the door to my room wide open and my gaze to the sky which I could see through a little window in the ceiling.

Occasionaly, my housemate, who usually had a favour for rock, would eavesdrop, asking me about the records I was spinning. He was especially fascinated by one particular album and so was I. This CD was “Desert Tryptich” by Tom Heasley and it quickly grew into a personal classic. The two albums which had preceded “Desert Tryptich” were quickly added to my collection as well and revealed a softer, yet equally spacious and mysterious side of the composer. I had to think back to this time while listening to “Passages”, because, in a way, this album ends this phase and leads Heasley into new and unpredictable waters.

Blood on the walls
Many will claim this announcement to be trivial. For “Passages”, after all, Tom Heasley has teamed up with Toss Panos and the mere fact that Panos is a drummer with a background as a session percussionist in the field of Rock reveals the incisive nature of his new work. The ambient tubist, who once poured his own blood on the walls of the Pentagon in a musical meeting with the sidekick to Sheryl Crow, Sting and Cliff Richard? It must have sounded surreal to anyone unable to imagine a serious composer digging the bluesicana of a band like ZZ Top (a fascination Heasley doted on in our interview). For everyone else, it must have seemed a promising departure from the beloved old ways.

A solitary touch of Jazz

Apart from the practical questions of how to arrange the interaction between a tuba and a drumset, the first thing one notices when turning on the music is how much this instrumental combination has changed the sound of Heasley’s music. His lush, warm, sensous and spacious tone is still as weightless as ever, but it now finds itself solidly grounded by Panos’ very earthly impulses.

This immediately creates a nervous tension, a state of constant alert as to the next breath of air and the next stroke of the brush. It also divides the music into different layers, which the duo constantly shifts in and out of, continually reversing and pushing their own functionality. This element of restlessness and of a permanent identity crisis awards “Passages” a touch of Jazz – the only touch of “Jazz”, however, as I should add.

For other aspects are much more important to the overall feeling of the album – aspects, which are far more drastic than the mere inclusion of drums. Tom Heasley has apparently completely changed his compositional technique. “Where the Earth Meets the Sky”, “On the Sensation of Tone” and “Desert Tryptich” were all characterised by a recognisable looping method, which would see Heasley start off with a blank sheet and slowly fill the pages with dots, lines and circles, which repeated themselves in carefully balanced intervals, growing thinner and bleaker in outline, but unleashing a thick stream of drones and harmonics, which would only gradually come to rest. On “Passages”, the only thing that has remained of this process is the ample use of reverb on his tuba.

Other than that, his short, sometimes only two note long motives are islands in a sea of emptiness, drifting peacefully, but unsettlingly unprotected. Often, as on “98% Pure”, he will concentrate on the mere timbral facets, producing storturous noises and tumbling gurglings. Then again, his instrument takes on the roll of a bass player for short stretches, gauging the deeper regions. But most of the time, his melodies have a more solitary feel to them than ever, while simultaneously roaming more freely.

Percussive events and a dialogue at eye level
He could not have wished for a more suitable musical partner for this mission than Toss Panos. Panos isn’t purely interested in sound (as many of his contemporary colleagues from the experimental scene) nor does he solely care for grooves (as all other drummers). Instead, he creates percussive events marked by a certain movement and visual meaning. With the exception of the long finale “Cliffs of Moher”, on which he builds a hypnotic fluency on the basis of Heasley’s slow, serpentine vibrations, his playing consists of concise, self-contained, uniquely catchy passages (pun not intended), conveying a sense of circling, spinning or describing a change from silent to loud, from metallic to organic or from analytically precise to relaxedly loose. It’s not that you couldn’t snap your fingers to it – because you can! But behind these seemingly simple phrases lies a deep wish to counterpoint the tuba in more than just a rhythmical way.

Panos aims at a dialogue at eye level – and he reaches this goal not just in the more compact pieces, but also in the stretched-out opening “Different Worlds”. For twenty-five minutes, Panos and Heasley engage in an exchange at times moody, erotic and astral. A sharp, guttural  string of sounds cuts through the mix like a razor through butter, while the track keeps falling apart into little drops of quicksilver.

As you can see, it takes some time to describe this incredible melange on paper. While it may not be wasted time per se, it still makes so much more sense to actually listen to the album. There are too many things which have stil been left unsaid and so many aspects which have not made it into the analysis, but all of these crumble in the face of the music. Despite all of the changes that have come with “Passages”, there is still an essential element of Tom Heasley’s music, which has made it to this exciting new era: It does not need to be explained to make sense.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tom Heasley
Homepage: Tom Heasley at MySpace
Homepage: Toss Panos

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