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Four Tet - Live at Alexandra Palace London, 8th and 9th May 2019 Music Album Reviews

Kieran Hebden’s new live album reminds us that he is a stellar performer, not just a producer.
The British producer Kieran Hebden has one of the most distinctive signatures in electronic music. First, a gravelly drum machine; then, some jewel-toned synth pads; and, finally, a strip of harp or chimes or wordless cooing, unspooling like wrinkled ribbon.

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Caspar Brötzmann - Black Axis & The Tribe Music Album Reviews

 The start of an extended reissues series, these two albums find the essential trio of the aggressive German guitarist fighting through darkness to find any light.

The music of Caspar Brötzmann can sound terrifying—fitting, of course, for a guitarist who famously called his early and most important band Massaker. In the late 1980s, Brötzmann, long inspired by the bohemian indulgence of his West Berlin youth, launched the power trio as a radicalized rock platform for his unwaveringly confrontational approach to the electric guitar. As a teenager, Brötzmann began to feel the possibility in the instrument, the way its comely order of wood and wire could be wrestled into feelings of unease and chaos.

And moments of the trio’s 1988 debut, The Tribe, do seem mortally frightening. There is the frantic solo at the center of “The Call,” where Brötzmann’s rabid circularity suggests someone trying to claw their way out of some mise-en-abîme marvel. And there is the trio’s theme itself, “Massaker,” a hellscape of militaristic bass, brutalist drums, strangled guitar, and distant werewolf calls. It’s the kind of music that makes you look over your shoulder, ashamed to remember you’re merely wearing headphones.

But for all the ghoulish yells, suicide-cult references, and malevolent tones, Brötzmann’s music with Massaker is the stuff of transcendence, too, the sound of three musicians fighting through darkness in search of any light. On The Tribe and its follow-up, 1989’s beautifully aggressive Black Axis, Brötzmann and his rhythm section wield the spare parts of rock’n’roll like weapons of collective liberation, lashing back against the very torment they’ve created. Written and recorded during a moment of tentative but hopeful international promise, when at least one wall was on the verge of collapse rather than construction, The Tribe and Black Axis are an unapologetic offering of new possibilities in rock—punk in spirit if not in sound, free in feeling if not in execution. Issued stateside for the first time ever as part of an extended series of Brötzmann excavations by the heavy-etcetera bastion Southern Lord, these 30th-anniversary editions have put them back into circulation at a timely moment when their unapologetic rebelliousness feels inspired and inspiring.

The linchpin of the first two Massaker albums—and, really, every record Brötzmann has made since—is the overwhelming physicality of it all. On The Tribe, Brötzmann seemingly marauds every centimeter of his guitar’s neck during “The Call” in search of the perfect screaming note while the band keeps pace. The finale, “Bonkers Dance,” is as close as Massaker has ever gotten to a standard rock song, with lurid harmonies and a gothic chorus that attempts to slip between Bauhaus and the Birthday Party with all the ease of a bodybuilder fitting into a budget airline’s middle seat. The effort is audible, with Brötzmann grating his knuckles against the strings to enhance the violin-like squeals and machine gun click-clack of his guitar. Drummer Jon Beuth lashes away so hard you worry he may tear a muscle.

Beuth was gone by the time the band again entered Berlin’s famed FMP in March 1989 to cut Black Axis, replaced by the more athletic but impressionistic Frank Neumeier. He widens Massaker’s scope, alternately adding a deep funk wallop and an outbound improvisatory zeal. Here, on their best album, they are paradoxically more centered and sprawling, building a song just to beat it into bits. “Hunter Song” begins as an incredibly tense post-punk tirade, Brötzmann’s guitar pulled tight like piercing razor wire; you could imagine an edit being an industrial anthem. But it climaxes again and again in a belligerent three-piece rumble, every instrument locked into a paroxysm to rival the biggest wall of noise or the most ecstatic Albert Ayler outburst. It is a considered sort of rock upheaval, the song a feint for something much wilder.

They exemplify this ideal during “Böhmen,” an eight-and-a-half-minute instrumental triumph. At first, the rhythm section seems only to pound ahead, the frequency and intensity shifting ever so slightly. But the pulse escalates slyly, quickening with a sort of pregnant expectation. Brötzmann responds in kind, his guitar coiling from early atonal slashes into a skywriting riff, fighting through a fog of acrid smoke. What seemed at first existential torment is a moment of pure liftoff.

Since the start of his career, Brötzmann has suffered our impulse for categorization. Whether repudiating the impact of his father, the free jazz provocateur Peter Brötzmann, on his music or shrugging off associations with fellow raucous travelers, he has repeatedly contested convenient associations. A 1995 cover story about him for The Wire (“Burning Up!” it’s called, in reference to the cigarette dangling from his lips) is a futile 3,000-word exercise in forcing him to commit to being something—an idealist, a naif, a liberal, a renegade, a heavy metal musician, a part of any scene at all. But the lifeblood of The Tribe and Black Axis is just how much Brötzmann and his band resist easy codification. They claw and scrape at the divides between rock and jazz, funk and industrial, Hendrix and Haino, songs and chaos, dark and light, a power trio with a mind for breaking binaries. Even after three decades of shifting or failing genre boundaries, the effort here feels like an earthquake.


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