Soundtracks for the Blind: Eli Keszler // Last Signs of Speed

Like the seminal Swans album, this column contains an eclectic collection of experimental music recommendations, all of which provide sonic landscapes for the listener to lose themselves within. Expect offerings from the genres of ambient, drone, electroacoustic, free improvisation, post-minimalism and more. 

Before jazz became a regular occurrence in my rotation, I thought bandleaders were exclusively pianists, trumpeters, and saxophonists given the prevalence of the instruments in the genre. This quickly changed as I ventured further into the genre, exploring the discographies of artists like bassist Charles Mingus and  flutist/clarinetist Eric Dolphy (who, to be fair, also played alto sax). But it wasn’t until hearing Jack DeJohnette’s drum solo on “What I Say” – from Miles Davis‘ Live-Evil – that I truly fell in love with jazz drumming, drawing me towards eminent jazz percussionists like Max Roach. To be clear, none of this is meant to frame Eli Keszler as a jazz drummer; his playing and composition on Last Signs of Speed doesn’t fit neatly in any particular style. Yet, as I listened to Keszler’s use of texture throughout the album, it reminded me of the songwriting sensibilities of drummers like Roach – musicians with a deep understanding of percussion’s mechanics and how any additional instrumentation should be placed in the surrounding space.

Aside from this compositional focus and role, Keszler truly positions himself as a percussionist rather than solely a drummer, pairing his work behind the kit with performances for glockenspiel, rocks, gravel, glass, metal and wood fragments. This instrumental selection indicate the tribal manner in which he plays, as flurries of percussive notes flit throughout the atmosphere. Keszler achieves a peculiar effect with this style; the primal textures of his instruments contain an air of deliberate contemplation. In this way, one can imagine him performing at a religious ceremony deep within the jungle, but in a position no lower than a shaman of the highest social stature.

To dial down the verbosity for a moment, it’s also worth noting Keszler’s tangible approach to improvisation and electroacoustics on Last Sign of Speed. While none of the official album descriptions credit these two practices, the resulting swirl of unsettling soundscapes feels like potent manipulation of spontaneous performances. He enlists an eclectic blend of keyboards to aid in this effort, primarily focusing on stark chords and melodies that fill the remaining space just enough to match but not overpower his percussion.

Additionally, Keszler’s use of modified orchestral elements throughout is especially effective, such as the eerie playing of cellist Leila Bordreuil on “The Immense Endless Belt of Faces” and the particularly masterful use of the String Orchestra of Brooklyn on the two-part suite “Is Strategist. Is Stage Director.” The album’s terrifying pinnacle, “Is…” buries and distorts its sounds until seems to score an endless free fall into the abyss. Perhaps more shocking, however, is the sudden burst of Keszler’s drumkit in a singularly bombastic display. His jazzy playing relies heavily on a steady ride and frequent fills, all of which add a pleasant dynamic to the steadiness of the surrounding tracks.

Yet, even though the album as a whole remains steady in its focus, Keszler retains instrument through his careful genre splicing and clear grasp of the strengths of percussion-centered composition. Last Signs of Speed is one of those December gems that remind me why I shouldn’t be so hasty to finalize my AOTY list before the year is actually over. Thankfully, it seems as though Keszler has a prolific discography, one I will begin following closely from here on out.

Last Signs of Speed is available now via Empty Editions. You can purchase a vinyl copy of the album here.

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus