Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sudden Oak – Sudden Oak [Bezoar Formations]/Radiant Husk – Beyond an Endless Swale [Bezoar Formations]

Sorry about the unannounced holiday break. I'm buried in a bunch of great records and I'm gonna start digging my way out with a couple of excellent tapes from San Francisco's Bezoar Formations label, which if I’m not mistaken, has roots in Western Massachusetts.
I was excited when I found out both these tapes are heavy on the sax. I’m a big saxophone fan, though a fair amount of the time when I hear underground sax-based stuff I’m disappointed. Not so here, the sounds are just tremendous. Sudden Oak is a duo of guitar and amplified sax. Beginning with sounds that don’t sound super guitar-like or saxophone-like the tape rolls to a start. The thing I like most about this tape is how the two vastly different instruments sound so unified. That isn’t to say they’re indistinguishable, the first piece on Side A features a number of moments when one member will briefly go off on his own but they always find their way back to a singular sound. The sound itself is distorted and blurry, not quite scorching, but not a mellow droner either. The second piece features a repeated two-note sax figure for a while with a relentless, pervasive hi-end guitar drone. Things continue in a just barely stable way before breaking apart into a strange cacophony of sustain and squelch before ratcheting the intensity down gradually to an almost whispering buzz. Side B sounds foggier with what sounds like a rhythmic loop of super distant hand drumming. Who knows what it really is. Guitar and sax both start in with simultaneous whines. Again, the duo cultivates an uneasy stasis where the sounds teeter on becoming melodic or becoming violent but are instead caught kinda wavering in between those two poles. It’s an interesting balancing act. Towards the end there’s a great honking flutter emanating from the saxophone giving the track a momentary rhythmic kick that’s matched by a siren-like guitar part. This idea is developed further with both instruments moving in bizarre seesawing patterns. The guitar dials down the distortion a bit and starts grooving in percussive fashion—which is a style certainly worth exploring further. That guitar part continues into a shriek out that ends the tape. I think this might be the first Sudden Oak release, in which case, these guys should be an exciting act to watch develop.
Radiant Husk is a solo project by Matthew Erickson who I’m pretty sure is the same Matt that played on the Sudden Oak tape. According to the liner notes the palette at work here is saxophone, drum, electronics and keyboards. The approach is pretty immediately different than Sudden Oak’s (though there are definitely some similarities in sound). The Sudden Oak tape is pretty raw and this tape certainly isn’t pristine but it has a hypnotic, entering-a-temple effect. The tape is fantastically layered with slowly unfolding sax melodies over a strangely feathery, hovering bed of sounds. Erickson makes excellent use of looping; every once in a while a rhythmic loop (often of sax) starts up and it pushes the whole craft further into greatness. There is a quick segue into another part/track that is a glistening, twisting, beautiful piece of sax mangling. A lower register sax part pops in briefly near its finish. There’s a short rustling interlude leading to a really beautiful bit of uneffected sax playing over an unobtrusive bed of keyboards. The keyboards drop out and Erickson creates a wonderful architecture of looped saxophone. That part ends all too quickly but it’s replaced with another more confrontational sax construction that ebbs and flows to the end of the side. On the second side, there’s a shamanic, ritualistic type thing going on at first. I must complement Erickson’s ability to make his saxophone sound otherworldly without burying it effects or making it not sound like a saxophone. I’m trying to go back through my sax experiences and I don’t think I’ve really heard one used quite like this. This is really effortless gorgeous stuff; just wave after wave of sound. The only bummer is it ends abruptly and too soon. The next part is more minimal and I can’t really tell if what I’m hearing is sax or synth. I’m leaning toward the latter but I could very well be getting tricked. This leads to another minimal arrangement, this time assembled out of sparse keyboard hits and quiet wandering saxophone. Closing out the tape, Erickson generates another beautiful (sorry for all these instances of “beautiful” but I swear they’re warranted) section based around a looping keyboard melody and screeching but tempered saxophone before a shiny drone grows bigger and bigger enveloping them both.
Both tapes are very nice looking. The Sudden Oak one has green screenprinting on a double-side fold-out J-card with info and a root formation or brain synapses or whatever it is printed on the front cover. Beyond an Endless Swale features an extra long fold-out j-card with x-ray visioned hot air balloons on one-side. The other side is even cooler with a weirdly psychedelic collage of dozens of colorful fish. If I had to pick between the two I’d probably go with the Radiant Husk one but Bezoar is selling these for so cheap I recommend you just pick up both.

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