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Figueras, Toop, Burwell: "Cholagogues"; My Cat is an Alien: "Mort aux Vaches"

img  Tobias

Rationally speaking, even the art of improvisation must come to its end at some point. After all, it should seem like there's only so many cues to follow, so many creative paths to explore, only so many modes of interaction to pursue  - after they've been tried and tested, surely, only repetition and clever recombination remain. And yet, there is something elemental about this ritual that prevents it from ever loosing its relevance. While one traditionally thinks of compositions as the artistic entities aiming for eternity, most are, by default, inherently bound to a particular era's tastes and thoughts (forget about theories that Bach invented dodecaphony and Beethoven anticipated atonality for a second). A deep improvisation, however, points to what unites, rather than divides artists over time, building a more subtly connected chain of in-the-momentness. An album like „Cholagogues“, for one, definitely shows no signs of becoming dated.

Part of this achievement is down to the passion and dedication that Francesco Tenaglia and Giuseppe Ielasi of the Italian Schoolmap imprint have invested in the re-release. From their choice of delicately rough paper for the booklet and the inclusion of scans of the A- and B-side of the original Vinyl disc to the careful remastering by David Hunt and David Toop, which sounds dynamic, warm and three-dimensional without resorting to drastic digital surgery, this package has all the bearings of a labour of love – and makes collectors still paying outrageous sums for the 1977-Bead publication look like foolishly stubborn completionists. Closing your eyes, you can either listen to the album as a historical trip back in time, when the trio would meet „for the first and probably last time“ as a stage unit and a simply cassette recorder would tape the event in all of its spontaneous glory, including Toop „stumbling into the microphone“. Or you can appreciate it as a work which sounds just as fresh and vivid today as it did more than thirty years ago.

Figueras, Toop and Burwell had certainly not just found a common ground that night, but stumbled upon an entire new musical landscape, cutlassing their way through its jungles like dauntless discoverers and communicating in an ancient, freely syntactic tongue. There are plenty of interesting details to be found in the short, but nonetheless informative liner notes, but the awe-inspiring list of sound tools used for „Cholagogues“ may actually be misleading for those trying to unravel its mysteries. Even though the instrumentation includes anything from respiratory and vocal sounds, body percussion, water whistles, bone trumpets and a balloon to drums, cymbals, woodblocks and an aeroplane elastic („a Max Eastley instrument and visual phenomenon“, as one is informed), it is, on the contrary, not diversity that defines the sound of the performance, but the discreet nuances between and within groups of timbres. This is most apparent in the contributions of David Toop, whose ceaseless stream of flute lines sublimates into meditative sheets of ultrahigh dog-harmonics in one moment only to evoke flocks of playfully singing birds the next – Olivier Messiaen would have loved this gig.

From the opening fusillades of pointed, powerful bamboo breaths (which will return at a later stage of the piece like a Leitmotif), the music enters a zone of both great concentration and weightless movement. Each action is allowed to take all the time in the world to develop and blossom, with even the sounding of a Gong or what appears to be the rolling around of some kind of barrels (but definitely ins't) turning into veritable artistic events. Through this complete immersion, there is suddenly wonder and beauty in every detail regardless of whether, as a listener, one is capable of actively following each and every step the performers are taking. As Toop increasingly reverts to subtle streams-of-consciousness and Burwell references Rock and Buddhist bells, dissecting rhythm, tone and texture, Figueras complements their more concrete colours with organic abstractions. The first half of the action is tangible and transformative, the second constant and introvert – taken together, they create a continuum of glacial changes that reveals new insights with each listen.

Fast forward three decades and there are several striking parallels with My Cat is an Alien's installment in Staalplaat's „Morts aux Vaches“ series. Just as with „Cholagogues“, artful packaging is important here, with the disc coming inside a digipack made of corrugated plastic and a lenticular cover featuring a morphing cat face. Attention to intricacies is vital, with the duo paying just as much attention to sculpting their drones and atmospheres as to the granular level of sound synthesis. Here, too, a wide palette of source materials seems to be at their disposal, with Roberto and Maurizio Opalio working with a fully-fledged percussion set, electronics, Guitars and (possibly) an amplified comb as well as making use of their voices to create haunting, ghostly melodic arches. Despite the project's tendency of burning bridges behind them and never looking back in their performances, the album makes a point of coming full circle in the last of three tracks and the final of 45 intense minutes by returning to the themes of its introduction, creating a sudden sensation of cohesion and fulfillment.

The approaches do differ in the density of the musical structures. While „Cholagogues“ feeds just as much from the richness of its sounds as from the ambient noise enveloping them, the Opalios tend towards denseness, concentration and aggregation. Even in the passages of psychedelic percussion leading up to the dark hum of the second piece's main section, the metallic resonances coallesce into solid walls of resonance and reflection. Most of the time, however, harmonic clusters pin their microtonal scratchings and timbral explorations firmly to the ground – even though the palpable Krautrock-associations contained here have an in-built desire to take their audience to a higher plane. As the tonal spectrum coagulates into a thick, slowly rotating spiral galaxy, a bewildering sensation of gravity takes hold. Caught in the eye of the storm, the ear is free to roam and attach its attention to whatever suits its interests – despite the sometimes oppressive darkness of the work, it never looses orientation or a sense of direction.

If the power of quietude drove „Cholagogues“, the silence contained within noise has turned out the key to „Morts aux Vaches“. For its entire duration, the pressure is on, with voices howling in horror, filters discharging themselves in electric spasms and undefined objects rattling, buzzing and roaring as if to accompany „The Texas Chainsaw Massacre“. And yet, in both cases, well-dosed contrasts make all the difference. Just as much as Figueras, Toop and Burwell are capable of tightening their grip at the right moment, My Cat is an Alien gracefully ease the tension towards the climax, releasing their public into good dreams. Rationally speaking, of course, all of this has been done before. But then none of these albums are not meant to be appreciated with the left half of the brain anyway.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: David Toop
Homepage: Schoolmap Records
Homepage: My Cat is an Alien
Homepage: Staalplaat Records

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