Time spent off the beaten path
by Gregory Taylor
Since the mid-seventies, the number of independently produced albums released on small labels has grown considerably and provided us with an alternative to the narrowing and increasingly more conservative rosters of major recording companies – to say nothing of the tight, heavy rotation playlists of even the “new music” format stations. And don’t kid yourself here – when the industry crows about the resurgence of “new” music, they are really talking about increased profits and the institutionalization of newer aural palette – the “artillery barrage” snare drum sound, lots of choppy, shiny Stratocasters, and a few layers of sixteenth note synthesizer ostinatos thrown into the bargain. This is not the place where the road from “punk Rock” and the D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) lifestyle leads. That road has dived off into the brush, and forks nearly as many times as there are travellers upon it.
In the case of the new Savant Album The Neo Realist (at Risk), perhaps I should say, “the road has dived off into the bush of Ghosts.” It is convenient to begin a discussion of both method and content.
Its tonal and timbral vocabulary is in that unusual territory between the natural and the synthetic.
Sure, the average record buyer may be a racist and sexist male dodo between 18 and 26, but as Gershwin said, “It ain’t necessarily so.” In trying to whet your appetite to sample The Neo Realist (at Risk) (Palace of Lights 15/2000), an album by an outfit out of Seattle known as Savant, perhaps I should say that the road out dives into the Bush of Ghosts. Kerry Leimer and company have produced a body of work that starts from the David Byrne/Brian Eno collaboration as a point of familiarity and steams off in its own direction. The method of construction of each piece is always in plain view, like the exoskeleton of an insect – lots of looped and treated guitars, and synthetics hung on a simple rhythmic structure. One has the sense of the way dub music in reggae is constructed while listening to the work, but Savant’s tonal and timbral vocabulary is very different from dub. Most of the sounds inhabit that unusual territory between nature and the new soundscapes of the industrial environment, and is in fact the result of some very sophisticated technologies applied to the production of a sort of polyglot “invented” ethnic music. (“Most of the percussion is wood and bamboo, but was the last sound a bird or a squeaky wheel in the machine of fate????”)
Also, like dub stylings, the human voice is given roughly the same status as the other instruments. It appears forward, backward, sped up, slowed down, and in a variety of permutations, whizzing in and out of the mix. The major exceptions to this are the title track, which features a properly disjointed vocal by John Foster on visiting a rescue mission (a sort of David Byrne and Ric Ocasek go to the mission), and the insertion of an African news script read by Akebulon Wake. At every step of the way, there is clearly a strong attention to detail here, which at first listen may not be obvious. My only problem (and a minor one, at that) is that the liner notes indulge in a kind of description of instrument and process that serves to mystify the proceedings rather than to tell you what’s being done and allowing you to examine the way it’s used. That provides a kind of misdirection of attention, towards the illusion (how did he do that?) and not towards the experience of hearing. Savant is interested in examining ideas of what is foreground and what constitutes background in our listening experience, and the casual listener can, I think, be forgiven for imagining he hears only background. This record takes an investment of time and attention to reveal its charms, and it is time well spent off the beaten path.
© Gregory Taylor
Jon Hassel | Aka / Darbari / Java
Savant | The Neo-Realist (at Risk)
by John Diliberto
Jon Hassell and Savant use advanced technology and the globetrotting recall of magnetic tape to merge the sounds, forms, and environments of ethnic musics into a Third world electronic transmutation.
Hassell, after studying with Indian vocal master Pandit Pranath and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, went on to play trumpet in LaMonte Young’s Dream House and on Terry Riley’s In C. With this global music background he released his own album, Vernal Equinox, featuring droning electronics, synthetically altered trumpet, and subliminal percussion from Nana Vasconcelos. His approach was well defined by the time he collaborated with sound-shaper Brian Eno on Fourth World Volume One: Possible Musics.
On his new record he continues with two sidelong excursions, Empire and Darbari Extension. These are dreamscapes with a mist of glissandoing tape constructions, arpeggiated mallet instruments, detached voices, and Senegalese drumming. Through it all Hassell’s trumpet rises like a vapor trail. Slurs and half-valve techniques are extended by harmonizers and delays into a choir of soothing ministrations. With current Eno-collaborator Daniel Lanois adding his studio manipulations, this music seems to move backwards through time, sifting half-forgotten memories. Sometimes, as on Darbari Extension II, the muted gamelan cycles drift into the land of nod, but more often it opens up a new world of color, seemingly just beyond our range of perception.
The spectre of Eno also looms over K. Leimer and his Palace of Lights crew from Seattle who make up Savant. Many of the same techniques are used, but instead of ritual trances, Savant has developed a pan-ethnic techno-dub music. Origins are blurred on Shadow In Deceit with African percussion bouncing across the stereo field while the guitars make like Japanese kotos and chimes. Using Words has a backwards vocal track played over a Moroccan rhythm with bent, carnival-mirror guitars. Throughout, electronic and acoustic sounds are clouded through a maze of unidentified taped sounds that fade in and out of the mix. It’s centered by throbbing ostinato bass lines and punchy, syncopated percussives.
Savant seems unduly cynical and contrived when using mock evangelical and news broadcasts, however. They lack the affection that Eno and Byrne exhibited for their radio-God subjects on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. However, both Savant and Hassell are creating important transglobal music that incorporates without patronization and without denying their own heritage. This may be the real music of the world, or at least a netherworld.
© John Diliberto