Little did you know, your life has been desperately missing a free improv record from a drum set-violin duo.
Little did you know, your life has been desperately missing a free improv record from a drum set-violin duo. Thankfully, Kid Millions (John Colpitts) and Sarah Bernstein are writing this wrong with their second collaborative release for the 577 label, a blistering collection of avant-rock tracks that places Colpitts’ booming drum set playing against Bernstein’s fiery and sonically explorative violin. What might appear as an unlikely pairing is instead a thought-and-movement-provoking record that feels as much like an intellectual exercise as it does an all-out jam.
Bernstein’s violin is filtered through so many electronics and distorting effects that, upon first listen, it more closely resembles an electric guitar in the vein of Thurston Moore’s post-Sonic Youth experimental releases. The deeper intricacies in her playing reveal an expert straddling of the lines between two instrument’s strengths, taking the rock-oriented history of free guitar playing and enlivening it with the violin’s particular physical quirks. The sharp bowed staccato notes that play throughout “Dies Infaustus” could never be replicated on a six-string, and this unique sound combination gives Broken Fall a sound unto its own, steeped in rock’s glorious excess but also tuned in to a highly technical, subtle style of playing.
The instrument’s potential for infinite sustain through the use of bowing is essential to Broken Fall’s identity. Most of these tracks revolve around ever-accumulating swathes of noise with a punchy percussive backdrop. Bernstein sings on a few tracks as well, and her monastic-chant-inspired vocals aid in the music’s quest for transcendence-through-repetition. “Never Breaks” is the most successful presentation of this fervor, in no small part due to the more nuanced harmonies that appear in the track’s second half. Most of the record sits in a chromatically cluttered middle zone, so moments like the ’00s post-rock sentimentality of “Never Breaks” or the delta blues-like riffing at the end of “Sign This” feel all the more significant.
While the duo format suggests that Bernstein and Colpitts are equals in construction, the former’s violin playing frequently dominates the mix and structure of these tracks. Colpitts’ drumming embodies a typically fiery free jazz mindset, with constant tom rolls, aggressive cymbal splashes and a fluctuating sense of pulse often dominating his performances. Underneath Bernstein’s motif-driven, slowly developing phrases, the sense of growing tension is enrapturing. When the duo reach the height of their crescendos, as they do toward the end of “Humint,” the effect is pure ecstasy.
These louder moments make up a bulk of the album and give Broken Fall its unique sound, but the most interesting moments occur in the contrasting points: the moments in between peaks, the slow and spacious paths toward the explosive finales. “Conditions” begins with the duo casually tumbling over each other, allowing the space between each violin stab or tom hit to breathe to nearly uncomfortable lengths. “Dies Faustus” finds Bernstein droning along a mid-range note with minor variations, and the empty low-end allows Colpitts to explore quieter, more subtle tom playing. The space between the instruments’ frequencies is like a hole in the stomach, and the duo’s slow coalescence into and disassembly out of a full sound as the track progresses is a thrilling ride.
Broken Fall’s concluding track, “Guerdon,” is by far its most radical moment, both in relation to its preceding six tracks and toward improvised rock music at large. The noisy grandiosity that defined the album thus far vanishes, with Bernstein and Colpitts instead embarking on an exploration of extreme quiets and spaces so vast that a healthy portion of the track is tense silence. The track instills an imagined version of an album that could’ve been, a twice-as-long record that broke up its constantly high velocity with more moments of this type of careful playing. If a record with this type of atypical instrumentation and freely improvised framework leaves you wanting more rather than gasping for air at its conclusion, that’s a win in my books.