Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Brisk Five from Slow Six

There are a couple of ways I could introduce Tomorrow Becomes You, the third album by the Brooklyn-based quintet Slow Six. Christopher Tignor, who writes the music, is a software designer by training, and his instruments are both more and less than fancy GUIs, ways to transform live sound in a group context, instruments that require the same kind of practice as their acoustic counterparts. A video linked from their website shows Tignor transforming in realtime sounds from guitarist Stephen Griesgraber, performing a piece from Slow Six's previous album, Nor'easter. One could also point to Brooklyn's rich musical environment, where a loose-knit collective performs regularly in different configurations as Slow Six, Redhooker, Wires Under Tension, and hopefully many more interesting projects to come.

Alternatively, I could focus the genre-straddling aspects of the group. The musical press treated their earlier work as an unusual melding of classical and rock. John Diliberto, the host of the long-running Public Radio soundscape program Echoes, famously tagged them as "Arvo Pärt meeting King Crimson." I find this description a bit hyperbolical, and at best applicable to the group's first two albums of electronic chamber music. Listeners introduced to Slow Six through Tomorrow Becomes You may think that Pärt has been apprehended and exiled back to Siberia, primarily through the addition of percussionist Theo Metz, who completely changes the character of the music. While the earlier releases were predominantly atmospheric pieces for keyboards and strings, Metz's muscular beats propel this album full steam ahead into rock territory. As violinist, Tignor carries over the string leads from the previous incarnations, together with Ben Lively sharing violin performance and Stephen Griesgraber on guitar. Rob Collins plays Fender Rhodes, supplying harmonic underpinning and an additional lead voice as required.

The album's opening track, The Night You Left New York , starts with quiet repeated pizzicato notes on the violin, slowly bringing in a gentle accompaniment and a sketched countermelody on the guitar, rocking around a simple harmonic loop. This opening could have appeared on earlier Slow Six albums, but the distortion increases, and then the drums kick in for an instant upsurge of the energy levels. Twin violins and the electric guitar swirl around each other, melodic structures repeating, reminiscent of an imaginary minimalism, each note perfectly placed to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts, while the Rhodes provides the harmonic underpinning. The odd meter becomes more regular in the piece's final section, broadening out for an exhilarating conclusion.

The two-part Cloud Cover builds up by accretion as well, from a static melodic fragment over a hovering minor harmony, driven by Metz's solid rhythmic work. A twilight hush brings in the second part, a sustained drone with buried radio voices deepening into points of light from the Rhodes and slow, drifting melodies intertwining from the strings. The voices, harmonized by one of Tignor's software creations, carry over to Because Together We Resonate. Slowly the music settles into an antique hymn-like melody that conceals within itself odd metric accents, while the voices burble throughout.

Another two-part work, Sympathetic Response System, brings back Metz's driving pulse again, with skittering electronics forming the opening background. A repeated guitar lick drives the piece into a solid groove, the pizzicato violins pulsing like a vintage Tangerine Dream song updated with contemporary electronica. An occasional bridge played on guitar in part one becomes the foundation for part two, creating a joint figure with the Rhodes. Slowly the electronics give way to the twin violins, and eventually the full band, accelerating into another animated conclusion.

These Rivers Between Us closes the album with another piece like the opener, powerfully driven by looped melodic figures from the violins and guitar. After a strong opening section with full harmonies, the violins drop back to short pizzicato figures accompanied solely by the drums, a quiet rhythmic section full of tension for Griesgraber's eventual distorted guitar. The varied instrumental textures coalesce to a moving and exhilarating finale.

If the rhythmic drive and the violins recall the King Crimson of Larks' Tongues in Aspic, the interlocking instrumental textures have much more in common with post-rock groups like Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai. In the absence of a dedicated bass player, the low frequencies are handled by Collins' Rhodes as part of the harmonic resonance, which directs the listener's focus to the intertwining melodic lines. Griesgraber's guitar is more delicate, more blended and more collaborative than a typical rock lead. Nevertheless, this is high energy music with twisted interweaving melodies, irregular metric accents, and mysterious nocturnal atmospheres, a confident and strong album in a different and promising direction from their past triumphs.

Tomorrow Becomes You is released on Western Vinyl and is available on CD directly from them, as well as through most digital distributors. The album's superb final track, These Rivers Between Us, has a peculiar video on YouTube.

1 comment:

icastico said...

Hadn't heard of this. Will check it out. Thanks.