Free improv and noise fans are probably most excited by the appearance of Hungarian drummer Pándi.
Almost as if in contempt of the strange star power of its billing names, this new collaborative release from ex-Sonic Youth member Lee Ranaldo, acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch, studio engineer Marc Urselli and experimental improviser Balázs Pándi eschews grandiosity in favor of an eerie weightlessness. While Ranaldo is far from the group leader, the sounds of late Sonic Youth—particularly the last few SYR releases—dominate the album. Hints of psychedelic rock and metal are stretched out and folded into atmospheric droning, with more emphasis placed on tone and sound construction than on readily apparent development.
While not the most recognizable name in this quartet, free improv and noise fans are probably most excited by the appearance of Hungarian drummer Pándi. As a frequent collaborator with Merzbow as of late, Pándi has the most defined history with this style of drifting improvisation. Fittingly, his gestures seem to guide the music more than anyone else. When he’s lightly tapping his hi-hat, the whole group sounds scattered and delicate; when he’s pounding on toms, the sense of energy is greatly heightened in a way that no harmonic player in the quartet can dictate. Unfortunately, sometimes his busy playing feels out-of-step with the steady drones around him. He rarely tacets, and on a track like “Andvari,” his skittering rhythms don’t quite match up with the slow-burning exploration of a single riff that his partners embark upon.
Not coincidentally, then, the album’s most successful track is also the one where Pándi feels best utilized and incorporated. “Groa” runs for nearly 20 minutes, but offers more moments of intrigue than many of its surroundings. For one, the presence of a distinct pulse does give the quartet a needed drive, and the interplay between Pándi’s interspersed fills and the twin guitar drones feel perfectly collaborative. Ranaldo and Jarmusch are tightly in-sync and develop some stunning harmonies throughout. Particularly in the track’s midsection, the semblance of sentimental major harmonies delivered through clean and bright timbres bring the album closest to the pastel supernova pictured on the cover.
The shining strength of this album is its sonic atmosphere—equal parts ambient bliss and spine-tingling noise; just as much of an avant-improv record as it is pleasant mood-setting music. However, the album’s overall lack of attention-grabbing sounds and distinctive melodic ideas can leave it in a forgettable place. These four musicians approach this music with such care and delicacy that they can often feel overly hesitant in their performances. “Gulltoppr” is nearly grooving and threatens a full explosion of sound, but frequent retreats into the same spacious guitar droning found elsewhere never allow the bombast to win out.
If “Groa” is the ultimate counter to this too-reserved approach, little moments throughout each track deliver similar bits of concrete, intentional playing. The five-note gesture that drives “Bergelmir” is nearly a conventional melody, and the accumulating purposefulness of each statement gives the track a winding, puzzle-like quality. The closer, “Haar,” toys with jarring harmonies in a way that no previous track did. The clash between Urselli’s thick bass, the echoing guitar attacks and the constantly ascending synthesizer pads provides a rich and gritty tension, giving the album’s last few seconds an unforeseen sense of finality. If this album forgoes the pleasing of any superfans of each individual musician, it succeeds in carving out a unique, if not always enticing, sound world.