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Ben Vince - Assimilation Music Album Reviews

Ben Vince - Assimilation Music Album Reviews Music Album Reviews
Fresh off a thrilling collaboration with Joy Orbison, the British saxophonist teams with Mica Levi, Rupert Clervaux, and others on an audacious solo album that feels like another team effort.

Does any other form of music have the same existential resonance as solo saxophone? While a single musician on piano or guitar can fill up every sonic space, a saxophonist’s mission is to strike a careful balance between music and silence. Whenever they need to draw a breath, the void comes rushing in with it. There are sax players who find other ways to create the illusion of wall-to-wall sound, like Colin Stetson with his Herculean circular breathing, and the many artists who rely on electronics and loops. But beneath those embellishments, something elemental remains; the saxophone flickers like a brief flame against eternal blackness.

British saxophonist Ben Vince belongs to the latter camp, using loops to thicken his sound. His first few solo releases took a contemplative, layered approach to free improvisation that felt close in spirit to Terry Riley’s soprano saxophone and “time-lag” accumulator experiments. Then, in May, Vince teamed with adventurous dubstep producer Joy Orbison for a 12" of agit-techno explorations that demonstrated just how well he could play with others. Assimilation is another team effort, featuring four collaborative pieces (and one solo track) that venture to the furthest reaches of experimental song, free jazz, uneasy ambience, and bristling techno. He has called his new role a “demotion from creator to vector,” but Vince’s unflashy saxophone work binds it all together into an audacious whole.

“Alive & Ready,” his collaboration with outré vocalist Merlin Nova, throws listeners in at the deep end of this unfamiliar pool. Vince opens with a mournful, echoing phrase, his vibrato resonating against Nova’s operatic cries. Amid doom-laden percussion, the tortured squeals of Vince’s sax leave an unbearable amount of empty space around each sound and Nova voices all manner of screams, gurgles, and slurps. Spare, dramatic, and skin-prickling at once, this din brings to mind Scott Walker’s late work.

Just as adeptly as he followed the dizzying peaks and plunging valleys of Nova’s dynamic voice, he next shadows the subtler shifts in vocals from singer-songwriter and composer Mica Levi (aka Micachu). Liquid and ephemeral, “What I Can See” is a different kind of art song from “Alive & Ready,” one that—like Levi’s collaborations with Oliver Coates and Mount Kimbie—sounds as though it’s been imported from Arthur Russell’s World of Echo. Looped, echo-laden, and treated with electronic effects, Vince’s saxophone mimics both the fricative buzz of horsehair pulled across cello strings and the ethereal rumble of whale song. Levi’s Russell-like vocals are murmured yet deeply resonant. In tandem, they create an impressionistic reverie.

Vince’s saxophone playing is short on melodic phrases, to say nothing of long lines. He prefers staccato bursts and noisy jabs, delivering shifting rhythms that add texture and a steady pulse in any context. As Data Quack, his group with This Heat drummer Charles Hayward, suggests, Vince pairs well with percussionists—and that makes the second half of Assimilation all the more thrilling. On the album’s 10-minute centerpiece, “Tower of Cells,” Vince, Raime drummer Valentina Magaletti, and Death of the Rave artist Cam Deas work as a trio, making a dense, roiling cloud of toms, shaker, sax blips, and electronic spumes.

Paired with percussionist and Sian Alice Group alum Rupert Clervaux on “Sensory Crossing,” Vince maps a heady terrain. It’s reminiscent of Clervaux’s crackling duo work with experimental electronic producer Beatrice Dillon, mining a rich vein between spontaneous improvisation and programming in much the same way their 2016 release Two Changes did. Vince’s horn leaps above Clervaux’s morphing, polyrhythmic patterns, then dives back into them and becomes a pulse swimming among many others. The musicians’ kinetic interplay conjures a swirling cauldron of shrieks and thumps, where the histories of free jazz, early experimental composition, and leftfield club music all cook down together.

Only the closing title track presents Vince in solo mode. Here, his horn splinters into layers of loops and shrieks, growing in complexity. The song matches the intensity of everything that comes before it, but as it slowly fades out, Vince pares down the music to a lone high frequency that lingers in space. His synergy with others thoroughly demonstrated, Vince’s final act of assimilation is to fade back into the silence that surrounds him.

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