A CLOSER LISTEN: Music for Viola and Electronics II
Music for viola and electronics II is a very good album, an improvement over its already solid predecessor. But with one small adjustment to the track sequencing, it becomes a great album. In its current order, the timbres grow louder and busier until the bursting centerpiece, “Vleugels”. After that, a severe drop in energy ensues. But move the last two tracks to the front, and one can appreciate the artistry of the entire set.
Expanding on the palette of the previous installment, Michel Banabila and Oene van Geel have added a bevy of complimentary instruments, including violin, trumpet, bass clarinet and drums, along with additional programming. A number of invited guests makes the moniker seem incomplete. There’s even an uncredited, fragmented female voice on “Radio Spelonk,” which reminds one of the recent experiments of Felicia Atkinson. This subtle, creeping piece deserves to be heard first, as it is both the softest track and the largest surprise. The sparse nature of this piece is echoed on the subsequent track, “Kino Mikro” (“Micro Cinema”), but this time the viola receives the chopping treatment, poking holes in muslin cloth until it finally breaks through. A slight air of menace pervades the piece, thanks to the slow pace and the pleading cries of the trumpet. But in its final three minutes, the piece turns to glitch, more than doubling its pace and throwing the windows open to the rest of the band. As it stands, the album ends in a repeated vinyl pop, but we like it better when the pop leads to another menacing piece, the current album opener “Hephaestus.”
To refresh our readers’ memories, Hephaestus was the blacksmith of the gods: hammer, anvil, fire. One can imagine him in his workshop as the thirteen-minute piece unfolds. Drones and static surges contribute a near-industrial flavor. The vinyl pop reappears in the third minute, flickering like tongues of flame. In the seventh minute, the dark drums arrive like the pounding of steel, accompanied by the sizzling sound of falling stars. This is magnificent, restrained work, a mature blend of instruments and influences unlike anything on the preceding album. At this point, it’s fair to reiterate our opinion that these albums need stronger, more allusive titles; Hephaestus would have been perfect.
Imagine now that the album is building toward its conclusion. The new penultimate track is “Chaos”, an all-out assault on the senses. van Geel’s viola is no longer content to remain in the shadows; the artist establishes his presence early, guiding the other instruments through a maelstrom of swirling sound. The track implies chaos by injecting sudden electronics, but ironically, the music itself has form, repeating themes on its way to a structured conclusion. The melancholic middle is its finest section, a yearning whisper that follows the hoarse throat of a scream.
And then, “Vleugels” (“Wings”). On this piece, the talents of the entire cast are showcased, and the music reaches for the stratosphere: out of the muck, out of the mire, out of any earthbound tragedy or terror. The opening moments sound like a rising flock, the first third like darting, and the final five minutes like soaring. With only 3:35 to go, the drums take the piece beyond the clouds. The sun spills forth, glistening in rainbows on the oil of the flock’s wings. And finally, for the first and only time on the album, pure strings, pure beauty, pure joy. Yes. This is where we want to end. (Richard Allen)