Tuesday 10th AprilApril 11, 2012
As the releases on the Entr’acte label continue to come thick and fast, (I’m reviewing them as fast as I can and yet still there are six unreviewed here at last count, with the much anticipated new Helena Gough album due any day) a very welcome arrival amongst them is another new album of compositions formed out of improvisations by John Wall, this time in a duo with the synthesiser musician Mark Durgan, whose music I was previously unfamiliar with. Now for those unaware, I have quite a close interest in Wall’s music, placing several of his earlier compositional pieces amongst my favourite music ever, and taking a close interest in his move from slow, tortured studio composition to his current situation in which he is improvising freely alongside a small collection of collaborators before forming semi-composed works from chunks of the material they generate together. I have over the years interviewed Wall twice, once for Paris Transatlantic and again last year for The Wire. So a new Wall album is something of an event for me, a new chapter in a story I have followed closely.
This new album has no title as such, and comes wrapped in Entr’acte’s trademark silver foil sleeve with minimal liner notes. Although the release’s web page at the label site features an incredibly wonderful painting by the sixteenth century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the music is left very much to do the talking here with no distractions. Durgan plays a “modular and pressure sensitive synthesiser” while Wall works only with his laptop’s computer generated sounds. This may be a key point that links to Wall’s musical journey- the sounds he used are computer generated, so I suspect they are no longer the remnants of samples long forgotten, as he has used before, but raw material created with the computer. The liner notes also credit Wall with “severe editing” so it would seem the six pieces of music here were created when he took recordings of free improvisations the duo recorded and cut up and rearranged chunks of them.
As with last year’s album with Alex Rodgers, the music presented to us here is much more immediate and raw than what seasoned Wall fans will remember from his early solo works. He has combined his sound very nicely with Durgan’s to the point that often its hard to tell which of the pair created which sound. It all sounds free and thoroughly improvised, even though that may not entirely be the case. What it isn’t though, and I am pleased to be able to say this, is overly noisy and busy. There is a lot of space in there where the music is allowed to breath, and while some parts do involve rapidly tumbling scribbles and synthesised flourishes there is plenty of definition to the music, with sections standing apart from others and the familiar Wall-esque sense of structure and compositional integrity flowing throughout. Durgan’s sounds are the perfect foil for Wall, similar in many ways and yet with an analogue quality and warmth that sets them apart from the harsher glitch of the computer. At times the two seem to burst into little flare-ups of activity, but each time this happens a passage of quietly brooding non-calm follows. I refuse to use the word calm to describe these little spaces in the music because there probably isn’t another word less fitting for music involving John Wall, who performs like a coiled spring and sees his music as anything but soothing or beautiful. The six tracks here ooze tension. The quieter, more spacious sections of the second untitled piece feels like it is pushing hard at the air surrounding the speakers, not making a huge amount of sound, but forcing the spaces in the music into all kinds of charged torsion. Spend enough time with it, involving yourself fully in it and it doesn’t do your stress levels any favours.The music here is borne out of improvisation, and the traces of it are very clear to see, but this no wildly tossed about set of improv workouts. This music has been tightly and carefully arranged.
As I wrote about the duo with Rodgers, listeners that are only familiar with Wall’s earlier solos will find this music quite different, much more vivid and immediate, rougher and less sharply defined. On this new CD though there is a musical camaraderie between the pair that suggests a fine working partnership that could well blossom into further, even stronger work in the future. For now, this is a very welcome new chapter in the story I have been following, a thoroughly musical album shot through with a spitefully tense undertow.