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Eli Keszler - Empire EP Music Album Reviews

Following last year’s mesmerizing Stadium, this three-track EP is as spacious and richly textured as experimental percussion gets.

The work of percussionist and composer Eli Keszler often feels like a tug of war between movement and stasis. On 2011’s Cold Pin, tiny, rapid-fire details massed into vast sheets of solid sound, like minuscule shells compressed to form enormous limestone cliffs. On 2016’s Last Signs of Speed, Keszler’s intricate runs and fills scuttled with the energy of a foraging squirrel, though drones tamped down the music’s volatile edges. Last year’s Stadium was his most groove-oriented release to date, its rippling cadences often reminiscent of drum ’n’ bass or hip-hop but smoothed by muted techno-jazz keys. Even when snare rolls rained down like soft avalanches, there was a sense of things coming to rest.

On Empire, a three-track follow-up to Stadium, Keszler moves even more toward what might be described as proper songs. As on Stadium, the theme running through this short, cohesive EP, Keszler says, is “the illusion of order during declines.” That may account for the songs’ relatively restrained kinetic energy: A familiar feeling of exhaustion oozes from the music’s pores. “Enter the Bristle Strum” is built atop a brooding, half-speed drumbeat—almost a shadow of one, really, just a lurching series of kicks and low toms fleshed out with faint detail. For once, all the focus is what’s happening tonally, as quiet, searching chord progressions blossom into Rhodes licks. It might be as close as Keszler has ever come to a ballad.

“Corrosion Kingdom” is even more lyrical. The drums here are all but an afterthought, with brushed snares hissing like a quick inhalation. The tonal field is awash in vibraphones and other glassy sounds; as an elegiac piano melody rises from the mist, echoes of Tortoise at their most diffuse appear. Turn it up enough, and it becomes apparent that there’s a gray layer of static draped over everything, like a crystal chandelier swaddled in a moving blanket. It’s an unknown shape lurking in the mix, as intentional as his pin-pricked cymbal taps. This is as spacious and richly textured as experimental percussion records get.

Part of this sense of space derives from Keszler’s unusual toolkit. Along with the vibraphone and the similar Vibracelesta, he has worked with several sample-based instruments of his own creation, the Violoskapa and the Amarelion. These, he explains, allow him to take environmental recordings from urban locations and compress them into “split second strikes… a way of collapsing long distances and large spaces into actions on an instrument, weaving these sounds and spaces around each other.” What exactly that means in practice may be hard to visualize, but it helps explain the music’s unusually charged atmosphere, as though it harbors unknown dimensions within its folds.

Only with the closing “The Tenth Part of a Featured World” do the flickering sticks of Keszler’s previous work come to the fore. The same slow mallets once again set the pace and pensive mood. There’s a hint of new age here—wind chimes, flutes, and voice-like synthesizer pads. Where new age leans into calming consonance, though, Keszler’s tones bristle with dissonance. That harmonic complexity serves as the springboard for his drumming: small, explosive fills that sound like knitting needles against a flat metal surface. It’s a remarkable array of textures and conflicting impulses, and as the piece builds—chords swelling, layers accreting, drum patterns tangling into tighter and tighter knots—it takes on an unusually expressive character for music so abstracted.

Keszler describes both Stadium and Empire as attempts to capture his impressions of modern American cities, especially the glassy sheen of their metallic surfaces, and tie that back to a sense of political and cultural malaise. What comes across in the music isn’t so much the illusion of order as the personal search, through sound, for a meaningful path forward.

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