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April 18, 2013

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Psychotic Quartet Cordyceps (New Atlantis)

The title of the third release from the free improvisational group Psychotic Quartet, Cordyceps, refers to a type of fungus that, after being introduced into a host insect, eats away at the insect from the inside and then when ripe and ready, finally bursts through the exoskeleton of the carcass. It’s a perfectly fitting—if somewhat troubling—metaphor for the way Psychotic Quartet infects its listeners in a sly and sneaky manner before wreaking havoc.

Available as a cassette and digital download, Cordyceps documents two live performances from the fall of 2011. One striking thing about the album is how it seems to avoid free-improv tropes of obvious moments of building and releasing. For most of the album, the waves are understated; indeed, this writer is reminded of the trick of lowering one’s voice, rather than raising it, to gain attention in a crowded room.

On “Ophio Sinesis,” the players generate rumblings and brief outbursts, stepping quickly into the spotlight before retreating. The song ends with a string duet between violinist Katt Hernandez, light and nimble as a hummingbird, and the ardent, inventive double bassist Evan Lipson, who feed off each others’ energy with a magnetic interplay. Trombonist Dan Blacksberg coaxes strange vibrations on “Yeast Stages,” while the unclassifiable percussion maverick Michael Evans lays down a bed of snaps and shakes.

There are no egos on display on Cordyceps, which features a keen sense of balance and concentrates on cooperative synthesis and sound meshes. “Ascomata” features the group at its most abstract, with Lipson’s low grinding, Hernandez’s gliding haze and Blacksberg’s trombone-white-noise simulation, before it drifts into softer, more minimal territory. The album closes with the side-length track “Devouring Mycelium,” which is less like an explosion and more like a disturbing discharge of richly complicated sonic ooze.

Lau Nau Valohiukkanen (Fonal)

One of this writer’s favorite albums of 2008 is the strange and beautiful Nukkuu by Finnish musician Laura Naukkarinen, aka Lau Nau, which had a gentle yet stimulating blend of the acoustic and synthetic. Like a folk album recorded 100 years in the future, its sounds and methods are not easy to place. Lau Nau follows that stunning album with Valohiukkanen, which paradoxically branches out in new, different directions yet manages to sound less experimental and enigmatic than her two previous albums.

Valohiukkanen opens with the track “Vololle,” which has a quality of beauty to it, but it’s a more conventional kind of beauty than that previously explored, with a relatively normal-sounding piano melody, the bowed strings of a jouhikko (a Finnish lyre) and gorgeous singing in Finnish, layered delicately like the aural equivalent of a pastry. “Kuoleman Tappajan Kuolema” is the album’s most baffling number, but it’s perplexing in not the best way, with four-on-the-floor, dance-oriented beats and pulsating octave-separated backbone notes, it simply seems out-of-place on the album. The mysterious fragment “Välisoitto,” translated as “Interlude,” is oddly the first example on the album that is true to Lau Nau’s previous sonic identity.

The album’s second half is much more interesting than the first, with a compelling cover of the Finnish folk song “Juokse Sinä Humma” (“Keep Running, My Horse”) with wild strings and driving bass and percussion notes from her backing band. “Paperthin” is another diversion, with lyrics sung in English and a Spanish, flavor provided by a nylon-stringed guitar and a habanera rhythm. The best, most spellbinding number is the closing “Silmät” (“Eyes”) featuring static, manipulated tones, sliced and diced piano bits, and cascades of wordless vocals.

The diverse yet uneven Valohiukkanen obviously sounds like it’s from a different country. However, Lau Nau’s previous albums sounded like they were from a whole different world.

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April 18, 2013

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