Radical Invisibility provides a pathway between more recognizable, idiomatic music and the insular logic that defines this unique album.
While there are plenty of improvising musicians out there blithering away on their instruments for no good reason, there’s an equally strong current of radical politics running through the history of the style, especially in the worlds of American free jazz and certain sects of European free improv (Cornelius Cardew, Evan Parker). With their self-titled debut album, the Radical Invisibility quartet overtly situate themselves in this lineage. Each track is dedicated to a figure who the musicians see as embodying some form of invisibility: American author Gertrude Stein, a friend of drummer Federico Ughi’s who died in pursuit of bringing his art across national boundaries, the Mozambican artists weNyamombe and Gomukomu weSimbi and blues legend Bessie Smith.
Though the group is led by and offers its biggest namedrop through multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, the quartet’s remaining three members define the group sound. Between the occasionally rock-based grooves of bassist Irma Nejando and Ughi, the metallic electric guitar playing of Stelios Mihas and the frequent jumps in style and feel, Radical Invisibility most closely resembles the sounds of ’80s New York, specifically the work of musicians like James Blood Ulmer or John Zorn. Still, the quartet are undeniably their own, less campy than the former and significantly more sincere than the latter.
Given their Carter stamp of approval-by-association, it’s almost a given that the group both do justice to and expand on this sound at its best. Both as soloists and a rhythm section, these three musicians are constantly working at full energy. Of many examples, the opening section of the album’s bonus track, “Mrs. Myth,” is a moment of particular cohesion, as the booming drum set locks in with Nejando’s subterranean bass riffs in a rewarding fashion. Mihas floats around them in a scrawling, sporadic frenzy (as he successfully does on most of the album), and Carter plays the foil. His general tendency is to subvert the chaos around him, not succumb to it. While his playing is not traditional by any sense, and he cycles through a range of instruments across the record, Carter does give off a knowing effortlessness that contrasts the in-your-face, audibly sweaty playing of the rhythm section.
Call it cruel irony or fitting karma, but there is a bit of a similarity between the social and political invisibility the quartet base their playing off of and the insular qualities of the musical world they inhabit – even for free improvisation, the music on Radical Invisibility is winding and discontinuous. The quartet are interested in non-repetitive, not circular, development. A short span of thirty seconds can cross all levels between fast and slow, converging and wandering, full-blown expression and careful, sparse group playing.
Beneath all these layers of perceivably a-harmonic, arrhythmic playing, though, lies incredibly subtle choices that serve as signposts to the album’s greater narrative. Mihas repeats certain motifs across different tracks, particularly a three-note, half-step-driven squawk that always serves as a temporary home base when it appears. There are occasional moments interspersed in the free-flowing improvisations where the rhythm section locks into a steady pattern, or Carter decides to shift from stilted runs towards beautiful, singing melodies, as he does during the final minutes of “weNyamombe and Gomukomu weSimbi.” In these sections, Radical Invisibility provides a pathway between more recognizable, idiomatic music and the insular logic that defines this unique album.
So, given the overall quality of playing, and the potential of Radical Invisibility to continue to peel away listen after listen, maybe the quartet’s choice to themselves become “invisible” with their challenging music isn’t so much a cognitive fault as it is a show of noble solidarity. Invisibility recognizes and hears invisibility, and the Radical Invisibility quartet’s choice to embrace and understand the potential for being ignored and erased while still having faith in a cause both gives credence to the revolutionary tone of their chosen name and helps further the emotional potency of what is admittedly very abstract music.