Soundtracks For The Blind: Ballister // Slag

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.

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Could free improvisation be viewed as stale and lifeless? I can’t help but think that the answer to this is a yes and no. Considering that what you’re hearing while listening to FI is created spontaneously, you’re technically listening to the musical equivalent of a snowflake—styles may be similar, but at the root of it all we’re talking about disparity. Yet, if you were one new to what FI has to offer, you could certainly hear it and believe that anything with a similar lineup is going to pretty much sound the same. While you can develop your own voice with an instrument, you’re nonetheless bound by the physicality of said instrument—there’s only so much difference you can make when you’re playing something that innumerable people also play.

As a big fan of free improvisation, I’ve often given both sides of this argument some thought—out of all the FI I’ve listened to, there’s a distinct penchant towards tonal belligerence and chaos, which, while very enjoyable (seriously, I can’t get enough of dat saxophone skronk), can also sometimes be stale when you want something a little bit different. Which is why I wrote this article about Ballister, and their latest album, Slag.

Keep in mind: if you’re not a fan of/unfamiliar with free improvisation, you’re probably not going to enjoy this, or, at least, not on the level that it can be consumed. Slag was recorded at London’s Cafe OTO—a big venue for experimental music in the UK—in 2015, and has only just this year been released. It features a pretty traditional trio lineup—that is, saxophone, cello (as opposed to bass), and drums. Added to the mix, however, is Fred Lonberg-Hom’s use of electronics on top of/in lieu of his cello playing, depending on the track. (What those electronics consist of is not mentioned, but it’s definitely hooked up to his cello in some fashion.)

What sets this entire album apart from other releases is its noticeable flux in dynamics and playing styles. Saxophonist Dave Rempis can skronk like nobody’s business (best observed in the first track “Fauchard”), but he’s also capable of lush, melodic playing that remind me a lot of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound”—very fast, arpeggiated lines that are just gorgeous. The entire trio uses the full spectra of their respective instruments, and will alternate seamlessly between what some people would name a “noisefest” (a term of endearment, if you ask me) and something right above a whisper. Lonberg-Holm’s cello work can range from sounding like the leftover scrap metal from an early Einstürzende Neubauten album to a neat wah-ed effect that seems to suck in sound and draw the ear. On drums, Paal Nilssen-Love isn’t afraid to give the drums a pounding or a gentle thump.

It might seem odd to describe this album as playing the entire dynamic spectrum, as dynamics are used in practically all music, but the way these guys do it blows me away. It’s very seamless—you have to sort of catch yourself noticing that change from madness to taciturnity—and it’s extremely indicative of not only what these guys are capable of as solo musicians, but of their unique group chemistry as well.

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Slag can be listened and/or purchased digitally via Bandcamp, or bought physically via Aerophonic Records

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