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Oren AmbarchiJim O’Rourke - Hence Music Album Reviews

On their third duo album, the two longtime accomplices balance free-improv flux with compositional rigor in a suite-like piece for guitar, electronics, and tabla.

In the early 21st century, Oren Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke were working at opposite ends of the spectrum (and the world). Australia’s Ambarchi came up in frenetic noise bands and self-released his experimental guitar albums, while the U.S.-based O’Rourke was producing Wilco and Stereolab while also serving as the fifth member of Sonic Youth. But at the root, both men’s music shared a mix of patience and steadfastness in their craft. When O’Rourke relocated to Japan in 2005 and returned to his free-improv roots, the sympathies between the two players deepened and they soon found themselves backing artists like Keiji Haino in a deconstructed rock power trio as well as collaborating together.

Their third duo album, Hence, carries on the template established on their 2011 debut, Indeed, and reiterated again on 2015’s Behold: forty-plus minute suites split across two sides of vinyl, each cagily alternating between improv and composition, feeling at once like a squishy amoeba as well as something with an underlying skeleton. As veteran craftsmen and listeners, Ambarchi and O’Rourke display an unusual ability to give a barely perceived shape to assemblages of small, almost incidental moments.

On Behold, Ambarchi returned to his first instrument, the drums, to give the piece a sense of propulsion. So it makes sense that the duo would again use percussion, though this time they recruit Hironori Yuzawa, the Japanese tabla player who goes by U-Zhaan. Fans of early 21st-century electronic fusions might recall that U-Zhaan provided the room-spinning tabla work in Asa-Chang & Junray, giving their already alien sound the distinct sensation of hovering a few feet off the carpet. The three have improvised live as a trio, and there was also a glimpse of their collaboration on Ambarchi’s 2014 album Quixotism, where O’Rourke and U-Zhaan both performed (alongside Thomas Brinkmann and Eyvind Kang) on the album’s flickering 15-minute finale.

Hence’s opening moments seem to pick up where Quixotism’s conclusion receded from earshot. O’Rouke’s modular synths and Ambarchi’s guitar slowly emerge across the first minute and a half before U-Zhaan’s first thrums on tabla make the piece blossom. Ambarchi methodically thwacks at his guitar strings, hammering at harmonics that bring to mind adventurous players like Fred Frith or Henry Kaiser. As he attacks his axe and U-Zhaan adds heartbeat-like palpitations, O’Rourke pulls at all the frequencies like taffy, swatting away some tones and stretching others into queasy new shapes. The second half opens up even wider, slowly introducing new timbres and textures without letting its atmosphere dissipate. The piece has the characteristics of a group improvisation, but O’Rourke’s real-time processing gives it a more coherent and organized feel.

Hence’s pacing is so careful that at times it reminds me of a raga—an impression reinforced by the presence of the tabla—while the subtle mutations of the instruments also bring to mind composers like David Behrman and Alvin Curran, who melded together acoustic elements with electronic processing to achieve an uncanny new amalgam of sound.

While the participants hail from Australia, Japan, and the Midwest, there’s something here that suggests the expansive and disorienting vistas of the American West. U-Zhaan’s pitch-bending tabla, Ambarchi’s whammy-bar work, and the upper frequencies conjured by O’Rourke all contribute to a sensation where the elements of the piece warp, shift, and flutter in and out of focus. Between the twang of the guitar and the space between each sound, Hence starts to take on the shimmering illusion of a desert horizon.

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