Chatoyant Psychic Hieroglyphs, If, Bwana The Ice Moons
(Detroit Cosmic Sounds)
The Michigan underground supergroup quartet Chatoyant has a peculiar and somewhat unlikely gathering of individuals with backgrounds in a huge variety of genres. To run down the list, you’ve got James Baljo (a.k.a. “Crazy Jim”), the guitarist of noise-purveyors Wolf Eyes, the wildly eclectic multi-instrumentalist and instrument collector Marko Novachcoff from Only a Mother, Joel Peterson of the ethnic-smorgasbord Immigrant Suns and the power-pop genius Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry.
However, when assembled together in this configuration, the members offer their own take on free improvisation, eschewing the confines of genres but definitely leaning toward a sort of spiritual free jazz vibe and quasi-psychedelia but not in obvious trope-filled ways.
Adding to the disorder is another curveball, with certain members playing instruments with which they’re not typically associated; Baljo sits behind a drum kit rather than strapping on a guitar, and Peterson—often seen playing a double-bass—plays a Fender Rhodes electric piano in the group.
The vinyl release Psychic Hieroglyphs is one of two albums the group has released in 2016, and this writer favors its approach slightly over the cassette release Place of Other Destination, which has a more slowly burning, disorienting feel to it.
The first side of Psychic Hieroglyphs features the 20-minute title track, which wastes no time in scaling its first sonic mountain peak, with an early, stimulating clatter of cymbals, impatiently delivering the goods. Brief opportunities to catch one’s breath are taken, and at one point, Smith’s ringing guitar stands in the spotlight; however, breaks are over in an instant. Restless interplay dominates here, and for short stretches, Smith and Baljo lock in on a vamp together, like magnets snapping into place; in the meantime, Novachcoff launches his interstellar reed excursions and Peterson’s playful, crystalline electric piano strolls offer brightness to the group’s sound profile.
The album’s second side features four tracks, apparently excerpted from longer sessions to zero in on choice moments, and the prevailing attitude seems to be one of discontent to stay comfortable; once a riff or pattern is established, it doesn’t exist for long, like a kid quickly knocking down a sand castle he just created.
It’s a messy, spirited album that may appeal to fans of cosmic free jazz, being the sonic equivalent of a jury-rigged spaceship with a faulty navigational system powered by an unlimited supply of fuel.
The Ice Moons
The album The Ice Moons from If, Bwana (an acronym for “It’s Funny, But We Are Not Amused”), the project of Al Margolis, reminds this writer that there can sometimes be a thin line between pain and pleasure. A gentle, sensual nibble from a partner might be welcome, but if applied with a more forceful bite, drawing blood and inducing pain, it might make one wonder if cannibalism is on someone’s agenda.
This thin line also comes to mind when thinking about the “chorus” effect in the world of guitar pedals and sound processing, which attempts to mimic the effect of multiple voices in a choir. A single voice (not counting multi-phonic techniques) can only do so much, but when a number of voices sing a pitch in unison, the result is a rich, thick sound.
The remarkable thing with the chorus effect is that there seems to be a breaking point—the more variance in pitch between the voices, the richer the sound; however, if you go too far with that variance, then instantly, the result becomes discordant, often perceived as an ugly sound.
On The Ice Moons, Margolis takes various recordings of sound sources and layers them in interesting ways, often demonstrating the aforementioned thin line by jumping over it between two realms. The opening track, “Norton, Hey Norton (Steve),” uses sustained notes from baritone saxophonist Steve Norton which sometimes produce agreeable, shimmering modulations and harmonies, but the pleasure is always fleeting, leading to harsh discord and back again. “Water” takes a similar approach, using Norton’s clarinet tones, but leans more strongly toward dissonance; the album’s closing track, “4 Dock PO,” is another such iteration using cello parts from Nathan Bontrager.
The track “Bowing for Dan Joe,” which uses recordings of Dan Joseph playing a hammer dulcimer using a bow, is a little more complicated in its method, with ambient drones that can be simultaneously soothing and irritating, and “Skyline Sunset Voice” is an unsettling fog of ghosts, with eerie vocals from Viv Corringham and haunted violin sounds from Margolis.
It’s an album of delicious contradictions, flaunting a bipolar personality in a smooth manner, darting between delight and discomfort.