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Eli Keszler - Stadium Music Album Reviews

Inspired by a move into Manhattan, the adventurous drummer fuses worlds of avant-jazz and electronica in a dozen restrained pieces that feel like streetscape scores.

For more than a decade, experimental percussionist and sound artist Eli Keszler has dismantled the idea of what a drum can be and how it should sound. He’s done this on enormous scales, turning Boston’s Cyclorama building and a Louisiana water tower into makeshift monolithic instruments. When Keszler pares down to just a drum kit, even those massive installations begin to feel small. For 2016’s Last Signs of Speed, he rendered a seemingly infinite array of sounds—hits, taps, scratches, rattles, creaks, clinks, thuds—from a kit, the results skirting the edges of techno, jazz, and modern composition. That adaptability has made him a stellar collaborator for experimental greats, from Keith Fullerton Whitman and Oren Ambarchi to Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never. On Laurel Halo’s Dust, for instance, he sounded as excellent melting into her electro-symphonic vision as he did joining her in a stripped-down duo. Keszler’s intricate playing suggests he could take on an army of Aphex Twin’s computer-controlled acoustic instruments, barehanded.

On Stadium, an album inspired by his recent move from south Brooklyn to Manhattan, Keszler makes music as expansive as the borough itself. Though geographically close, the areas are worlds apart, and the record matches the latter’s bustle at every step. Listening to Keszler’s music in a place like Manhattan has previously seemed daunting; try navigating overcrowded streets and clogged subways while hearing the disorienting “Sudden Laughter, Laughter Without Reason” without getting the spins. But Stadium begins with the feather-light jazz of “Measurement Doesn’t Change the System At All,” where cool drum leads and synth splashes that recall Bitches Brew glide like a subway leaving its stop. For an hour, his dynamic highs and lows match the unpredictable velocity of a place where something wondrous, tragic, hilarious, or simply frustrating seems to linger behind every corner.

Even as moments skew lively or contemplative or purely abstract, pieces like “Flying Floor for U.S. Airways” and “Lotus Awnings” reveal subtle complexities in flux. The latter lifts things early with nimble polyrhythms and a sprightly Mellotron hook, but Keszler shifts between tension and release as uneasy pianos and percussive drones drift into focus from behind. By the end, the piece flirts with atonality, that melodic loop now outnumbered and swallowed. Those two tracks bookend Stadium’s devastating epic, “We Live in Pathetic Temporal Urgency,” where Keszler’s percussion spreads out like a skyline. The drums are restrained for most of the song’s seven minutes, hanging still to let the layers of synths and horns haunt. It’s a bleak passage, capturing the daily communal that traveling strangers share in their “pathetic temporal urgency.” This triptych is only one example of the album’s brilliant sequencing. The delicate trio of “Which Swarms Around It,” “Fifty Four to Madrid,” and the horn-dappled “French Lick” rest in the center of the album like a valley. Those constant shifts in velocity align Keszler perfectly with Manhattan’s coherent chaos and place Stadium’s elastic rhythms comfortably between Autechre’s Confield and the free jazz odysseys of Milford Graves.

For all the complexity of Stadium, its true genius lies in understatement and how a thousand small sounds build into a larger vision. The album ends on its lightest note with “Bell Underpinnings,” where vibraphones twinkle over a submerged bed of subtones. Recalling exotica king Martin Denny at his most atmospheric, this is Keszler at his most playful. It should blend perfectly with the winter New York streets when jingling bells from charities soundtrack busy sidewalks. It’s one of the many instances where you can picture this music adapting to any season, city block, or neighborhood. That’s ultimately Keszler’s greatest accomplishment: He doesn’t try to make sense of a subject as cacophonous as Manhattan so much as he simply frames it.


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