Modern music has few people prolific as Australian guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi. He started out as free jazz drummer in his native country before moving to guitar, which he plays experimentally and unconventionally, producing sounds alien to traditional music.
His music is of a consistently high quality and he puts out an amazing amount of collaborations, with people as respected as Sunn 0))). He has a simply huge discography, with more than 3 releases this year so far and an album with Sunn 0)))’s Steven O’Malley and Keiji Haino in production. While I admit his regular output is often a challenge to keep up with, he rarely lets the quality slip and has an outstanding range.
The logical starting point is the only solo work released this year, Audience Of One. What surprised me about it was the prevalence of vocals on the first track. I have to admit that that from the opening of ‘Salt’ I was puzzled, even disappointed. On further listens, however, I realised that it was both relaxing and resonant, if a little lacking in experimentation. The same could be said for the last two tracks, which are interlinked and contain some conventional use of acoustic guitar over ambient soundscapes. If all this sounds like a quaint ambient album, it’s because I haven’t mentioned the second track. As nice as the pieces are, the main event is the 33 minute centrepiece ‘Knots’, which is a noise rock/drone/free jazz/hard to define piece, and one which doesn’t disappoint. It’s very hard to describe because it is a persistently evolving musical journey, starting ambient, with a beat that slowly speeds up, building in intensity, until it drops out, leaving a more empty soundscape led by metallic sounds.
The second album is a collaboration with Swedish free jazz band Fire! entitled In The Mouth a Hand. Fire! are a super group of sorts, as all of the trio have made their names in other projects. They are signed to the Norwegian Rune Grammofon label, and are masters of creating hypnotic platforms for the build-up of intensity, at once ominous and reflective. It must be said that the album is closer to Fire!’s natural style than Ambarchi’s and in fact, on the first listen I struggled to work out what exactly Ambarchi did on the album. He is credited as playing guitar, but as touched on above, he makes sounds that little resemble the traditional guitar. On further listens it became clear what his role was. The album is one of those brilliantly layered albums where the listener notices new elements on every listen and this subtlety is due to Ambarchi, with a wide array of effected tones and various ambient sounds. This is unlike a lot of free jazz in that is doesn’t stop and restart threateningly loud. Fire!’s rhythm section maintain hypnotic rhythms giving these songs the impression of slow burners, which gradually rise and fall with their own momentum. It is not bereft of intense moments though, as Fire!’s trumpetist and Ambarchi’s noises often combine to great effect to provide claustrophobia, even within such an expansive sound.
Live collaboration with Keiji Haino and Jim O’Rourke, Imikuzushi, completes the set with the most extreme of the offerings. The first track is a statement of intent, from 0.01 going straight for the jugular with some balls-to-the-wall, blistering noise rock, which eventually settles down to a steady rhythm with recognisable instruments but still noisy guitar. Oren Ambarchi returns to his original instrument, the drums, and links up well with O’Rourke, who plays bass on this album. Later tracks settle down to a more conventional style, still intense and building, and this album is definitely a notable departure from their earlier works, where the music could often be an interminable mass. This sounds more like Boris on an acid trip gone bad. A further departure is that this really sounds like a Haino project as he plays the guitar and does vocals. A highlight for me is the third track, which starts of muted and ambient, a soundscape imbued with haunted beauty until after 8 minutes is drops into a normal beat, which I can’t help but interpret as a nod to Krautrock. Album of the year so far.
While the order I’ve reviewed them in seems to suggest ascending quality (and does to me), I hasten to add that it’s almost not applicable, because each album has a different scope of moods, and caters to a different musical whim: Audience of One is a catharsis sandwich with ambient relaxation instead of bread; In The Mouth A Hand is a set of fierce but hypnotic soundscapes, only added to the organic sound of Fire!’s jazz instruments; and Imikuzushi is an exploration of some darker elements, often intense but just as often slow ominous and building.
It is a common belief that prolific musicians are often inconsistent and that when you release that much output, some is bound to fall flat. While I have far from listened to Ambarchi’s entire discography to truly confirm or deny this, it is worth pointing out that every one of these albums is well worth listening to. Perhaps it’s the amount of collaborations that lead to this, but every album seems to be endowed with a little bit of genius, impressive on the first listen but imbued with more and more depth, subtler and subtler elements with each subsequent listen.