In Ken Vandermark’s music, method matters. While the Chicago-based saxophone and clarinet player never performs like it doesn’t matter, each performance can also be understood as part of a rope braided from evolutionary threads. This is especially true with his ongoing bands, of which Made To Break is currently one of the most enduring. It has been around since 2011 with just one change of personnel (electric bass and guitar player Jasper Stadhouders took over for Nate McBride early on; drummer Tim Daisy and electronic musician Christof Kurzmann have been around since the beginning).
So let’s start tugging at those threads. Vandermark usually has a band on hand where he can express his more rhythmic side; for the past decade, Made To Break has been that band. His partnership with Daisy goes back to the early aughts, when he was in the Vandermark 5. He’s also been striving for about as long to stay engaged with the possibilities of electronics.
But there’s one thread unique to Made To Break, and that’s methodology. The quartet’s music is modular, which is to say that while there are fixed parts, they can be re-ordered on the fly whenever an appointed musician tells the rest that it’s time to change channels. They’ve been working on this way of working for as long as the band’s been around, and they’ve gotten pretty fluid at negotiating those changes. So while each of F4 Fake’s three tracks is fairly long and contains contrasting passages, they still hang together as lucid sonic narratives.
F4 Fake’s greatest pleasures, however, are the most visceral ones. There’s palpable delight in Daisy and Stadhouders’ grooves, and the way Vandermark rides them, and also a bracing, thanks-I-needed-that smack when he or Kurzmann shove the music into freefall. So don’t steer away from this record because you think you need to have been on board for the whole trip, because the moment’s thrill is more than enough.
The last Swans album, 2016’s The Glowing Man, looked for a moment like it might really be their last. It capped a run that was epic in every way: songs that ran a half hour or longer, tours that stretched to years and a sustained energy that no one wanted to dishonor by letting it go flat. And it captured, as much as a studio album can capture, the essence of the live band. So bandleader Michael Gira went into the tour supporting it saying that this was the end.
Turns out that it was the end of “they,” but not the end of Swans. Leaving Meaning refigures the “group” as Gira and whoever he chooses to work with. Members of the 2010-2017 band appear, as do figures from other phases of Swans. But there are also people who were never Swans before or aren’t going to be with Swans for the long haul because they have other things to do. The Necks, an improvisational trio from Australia, back Gira on two tunes, and cabaret chanteuse Baby Dee sings lead on another. Enjoy them for a moment, first because that’s all you’re going to get, but also because the collaborations work really well. The Necks may simmer where the last Swans sustained a raging boil, but they still know how to keep the tension right where it needs to be.
Gira takes advantage of the unfixed personnel to unmoor the Swans sound. There are songs that ponder the need for purpose and the point of existence. Others look unflinchingly at what people do when they’re sure their right. “Sunfucker” will make you want to bar the door and find an escape hatch to avoid the narrator’s unholy—or is it too holy?—glee. There are still songs that rock for a good long while. But others drift, soft and sensual, or funereal and resigned, and they provide some of the album’s most sublime moments. As on The Glowing Man, Gira pulls a song from out of his past. This time it’s “Amnesia,” off 1992’s Love Of Life. By slowing it from its former galloping pace to a funereal trudge, he recasts it from a celebration of personal dissolution to a sour contemplation of a society in decline. Leaving Meaning asks what’s next, and finds plenty still to do.
Rock ‘n’ roll is pretty easy to find around the globe, but it hasn’t been the global lingua franca for decades. Buttonhole a youngster on the street in Bamako, Singapore or Moscow, and they’ll tell you that they want to be a rapper or a DJ. But back in the 1960s, kids around the globe not only wanted to pick up electric guitars; quite a few of them wanted to sound like the same guitarists: the guys fronting the Shadows and the Ventures. The music on Pakistan: Folk And Pop Instrumentals 1966-1976 documents how tremolo and twang thrived and survived in an environment quite different from the one that nurtured it.
In the mid-’60s, Pakistan underwent a brief period of cultural thaw that made it possible for kids in Karachi to grow their hair and pick up electric guitars and line up to play nightclub stages. A musical business that could circulate singles by the million never grew up to support them, but a lucky few got to cut incidental music for movies and television shows. The Panthers, the Mods and the Bugs are just a few of the combos on this 22-track compilation, which shows how well reverberant guitars, perky organs and watusi beats go with folkloric melodies.
The whole thing came to a crashing end in 1977, when a coup ushered in a wave of social repression and all un-Islamic entertainment got shut down. But like a comet that blazes through the sky every few years, this music is impossible to keep down. Pakistan: Folk And Pop Instrumentals was available for a moment as a double LP in 2011; now it’s been reissued as a CD or download. However you take your music, don’t sleep on this set again. It’s too much fun to put off for another decade.
Whether you’re playing music or fighting for freedom, you have to be ready to go the distance. The 2017 debut album by Jaimie Branch’s Fly Or Die band came close to a knock-out punch. But there’s always the next gig, the next record and the next racist rally to contend with, and Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise serves notice that Branch is ready on all fronts. It builds upon the long-form ambition and free jazz fire of its predecessor, adding explicit messages and exuberant, multi-cultural grooves.
In addition to her commanding trumpet playing and subliminal synth work, she’s a technically adept and emotionally undeniable singer, equally at home hollering dire warnings about wild-eyed racists on the 11-minute “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2” and crooning tenderness to people who just don’t deserve it on closer “Love Song.” In between those two tracks, Branch and crew use interlocking string patterns, seething drones and layers of percussion to dance the listener back and forth between inner space and an all-night party in the town square. These musicians are in it for the long haul, and this album will do wonders for the listener’s stick-to-it-tude.
An “apsis” is the nearest or farthest point of a planet’s orbit. It’s a handy metaphor for the dynamics of this quartet, which draws together four Chicago improvisers from different cohorts. Saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Joshua Abrams each came to the city in the 1990s; synth/piano player Jim Baker and drummer Avreeayl Ra have each been on the scene for decades. They all specialize in creating longform, unscripted pieces that range widely in style and mood, but always sustain a lucid narrative thread.
In other words, Rempis, Abrams, Ra and Baker can devise tunes strong enough to stick in your head and grooves that’ll move you on the fly. But they’re willing to shift away from what they’ve invented and dive into a maelstrom to see what comes up next. The “+” in the band’s moniker denotes Baker’s status as the its walk-on wild card; he flits from complimentary accompaniment to productive disruption, alternately energizing and corroding the ensemble’s interplay with acid bubbles from his ARP synthesizer.