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Between Rock and Hard Space

ST 37
Down on Us (Emperor Jones)

Southkill (Noreaster Failed Industries)

Those lovable, furry, science-fiction addled English hippy rockers Hawkwind have cast an impressively long shadow over contemporary rock, electronic, and ritual trance music since their early-’70s heyday, when they regularly played free shows under highway bridges and outside the gates of European rock festivals, scoring an improbable U.K. hit with “Silver Machine” (featuring none other than Lemmy Kilmister, later of Motörhead, on lead vocals). While the current cultural impact of the Hawks’ musical starship’s wanderings have been diluted over the past five years or so by squabbling between rival alumni camps (one headed by guitarist Dave Brock, one by saxman Nik Turner), there’s no shortage of guitar-and-synthesizer-wielding groups stepping forward to fill the blanga-sphere with choice smash-and-bash-flavored trance and space rock.

Austin, Texas’ ST 37 may well be the best of the bunch, and Down on Us, their second record on the Emperor Jones label, is as good an introduction to this prolific, long-standing underground favorite as you’re ever likely to find. After the release of 1999’s I Love to Talk, If There’s Anything to Talk About, veteran sequencer player Carlton Crutcher departed from the band (although he’s featured on four tracks on this new record), leaving the remaining quartet with a lot of extra sonic space to fill. No worries, though, as bassist S.L. Telles and a few well-selected guest artists (on cello, turntables, “space echo” and keyboards) carve admirably evocative soundscapes in the gaps where Carlton once romped—without ever diluting the straight-up rock poundings being issued by drummer David Cameron and guitarists Mark Stone and Joel Crutcher. That extra auditory breathing room brings melody and vocals to the front of the mix and, once again, the band succeed admirably in their new configuration with surprisingly catchy riffs and clever, thoughtful words to spare.

Southkill (a duet featuring New Zealand-bred Jason Kerr and former Glitter of Cohoes player John Dudley) eschew words, for the most part, in a potent instrumental take on powerful drone-fortified rock & roll. Their self-titled record features only five cuts, but they’re long ones, all well-developed and muscular, with insistent, pulsing rhythms and floating guitar figures wrestling for supremacy throughout this record’s run. Far more minimalist than ST 37, Southkill cut right to the heart of Hawkwind’s seminal sound, distilling the grind and groove of a lockstep-tight guitar-and-drum tandem into a fine, potent musical brew, equally suitable for meditation or marauding, depending on your mood. This is space rock rooted firmly in granite substrate, and it’s an auspicious debut from a band worth watching.

—J. Eric Smith

Nad Navillus
Iron Night (Jagjaguwar)

The name of the man behind Nad Navillus can be found by reading the two words in reverse. This new moniker actually gives a sort of strident heft to what would otherwise carry a neighborly friendliness. In fact Mr. Sullivan is no stranger to the world of oblique handles, having been a collaborator in the ever-puzzlingly named outfit Songs: Ohia.

Lost sleep, polluted skies, impending freeze, unsatisfied urges, and release through drink and conflagration run through these nine songs, as well as the package assortment of guilt, fear and the inevitability of death. This nicely crafted tour through darkness actually sounds more upbeat than it is at its core—not that you’d mistake any of these for cheery pop. Based around a guitar-fronted combo, a song like “What Is Hers to Take Tonight” bears more than a passing resemblance to Richard Thompson (albeit without the added scorch of Mr. Thompson’s guitar playing). “Too Tight” is positively riveting as its bed of guitars weave a tapestry that sounds like a fuzzless Hüsker Dü. Since the actual total number of sunny hours is less than those identified by cloudiness or night, there are plenty of opportunities for this music to line up nicely with the world within and without.

—David Greenberger

Matthew Shipp
Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear)

One of Shipp’s more accessible albums, Equilibrium is the first of three recordings this New York pianist plans to release this year. The man is inherently collaborative; this features his interplay with longtime associates William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums and Chris Flam on synths and programs. And the new element is Khan Jamal, whose vibraphone broadens Shipp’s textures without diluting them. The pieces swing between the pensive and the pulsating, and overall the album grows more watery as it progresses. Such pieces as “Vamp to Vibe,” “The Root” and “The Key” traverse Shipp’s darker, more percussive approach. In contrast, the thoughtful, deliberate title tune, “World of Blue Glass” and the eerie “Nu Matrix” exhibit Shipp’s more painterly, ambient side. The production is luminous, the atmosphere paradoxically soothing yet modern. Even though several tracks seem at first to wander, the album is ultimately of a piece. It’s subtle, too: Shipp and Flam have produced it so each track serves up a different soundfield. While none of it approaches the disturbing, it’s finally more stimulating than calming. Think of background music that forces its way to the forebrain, Equilibrium makes you glad it finds its proper place. Guess that’s why Shipp is categorized as avant-garde.

—Carlo Wolff

Oh! (Blue Note)

Behind this saw-toothed creation of a word are four exemplary players: guitarist John Scofield, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Al Foster. They’ve worked together over the decades in various combinations, but not all together as a quartet. And, of course, they all have the letter “o” as the vowel in the first syllable in their last names.

After two tours (in 1999 and 2002), the four convened in New York City to record their debut. All four are well-developed composers, nicely causing the disc to tip the scales at nearly 77 minutes. The length of a double album, Oh! never bogs down, due to the richness of the writing and endless surprise in the performances. Holland’s more elliptical melodic sensibilities are a fine counterpoint to Scofield’s post-bop, with Foster’s “Bittersweet” and Lovano’s “New Amsterdam” bringing in elements from blues to ’60s avant-garde. Remarkably, with writing as broad as that, this set holds together with the cohesive identity of a unified combo. This is a testament to their strength as players, each with a strong individual voice, but with the understanding of what’s possible with sympathetic interplay.



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