For the sake of full disclosure: I like the band in this review. I have worked with some of the members in a creative capacity. Does this skew my ability to create an "objective" review? Of course.
However, does this discredit my words? I doubt it. The reason why I happen to know the people in the band which played on this particular night is because their band is good. As often happens, I saw the band first and then I made their acquaintances later. When I see groups I like, I cannot help but to get personally involved with them. I would be a fool not to. Good music is hard to find, and more often than not the quality of one's music directly reflects upon the nature of one's personality.
Just because I am friendly with someone does not mean I like or endorse their band. Quite the opposite: I am not easily impressed and I don't need to suck up to anybody for any reason. There are plenty of friends' bands I neither like or will promote, just as I'm sure I have many friends who would rather eat cat turds than hear mine. I really gain nothing personally by writing a positive review of this event. There is no payola involved and no one here will become an instant star from this piddly review. The event is over and I'm sure this particular mixture of bands may never grace the same stage again. This piece is purely for the sake of documentation and I hope the reader is imparted with a flavor of the entire context surrounding it. Like it, or lump it as you wish, but here it comes.
This show took place at Union Pool, in Brooklyn . . .
The New York based group Borbetomagus has maintained an unflagging committment to hardcore, high-energy free improvisation since the first self-titled LP release in 1980 on their own Agaric Records imprint. Although various other personnel have passed through the ranks (late bassist Adam Nodelman, electronics operator Brian Doherty and others) and many collaborations have been undertaken (Shaking Ray Levis, Hijo Kaidan and Voice Crack, to name a few), the core of the band steadfastly remains the trio of saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich, and guitarist Donald Miller. Borbetomagus specialize in loud and fast displays of extremely violent momentum and density, their respective instruments melding into a volcanic whole.
I first wrote about the group and their work in a 1993 zine I worked on with some friends called "Nice Slacks". The gist of the long article was that within this seemingly singleminded modus operandi there were actually many possible variations. From album to album the group continued to evolve and progress. The early works are relatively organic in nature, featuring more space and overt timbral variation. Albums such as "Work On What Has Been Spoiled" (Agaric, 1981, with Music Improvisation Company electronics pioneer Hugh Davies) and the epic double live release "Zurich" (Agaric, 1985) deal in knotty tumbles of acidic, harshness inspired by the wooly, no-holds-barred approach of late '60s/early '70s American Free Jazz but tempered by a brittle sense of architecture reminiscent of the Incus and FMP schools of European improvisation. The saxophonists eventually incorporated increasing amounts of electronics and amplification, culminating in the monstrously cacophonous salvo "Snuff Jazz" (Agaric, 1990). By utilizing effects such as distortion, delay, pitch shifting, envelope filtering, etc. Dietrich and Sauter were able to match the oceanic roar of Miller's extended guitar approach with new alacrity. Since then the use of electronic feedback as a foundation for the group sound has remained prevalent, many performances tending to give the overall effect of an unending tidal wave of droning power.
On this night, the group began tentatively for a few moments, each member nonchalantly adding an ominous, sustained feedback moan before Dietrich kicked on his distortion pedal and erupted with an attack of high, piercing squeals. Sauter followed suit and Miller began to rake his battle-worn black Fender Telecaster with a slide, creating a sludgy background color behind the horns. Sauter tended to meld with Miller closely, the two blending into a mass of fuzz while Dietrich tended to make more traditionally soloistic statments. Many times during a Borbetomagus set, variations and release of tension tend to come more from varying degrees of density rather than actual dynamics in volume. The horn players use pitch shifting extensively to augment the weight of their signals, adding additional octaves beneath the fundamental tones of their saxophones. Depending on the ranges they are playing in, the effect varies from a low sub-bass rumble up to a wobbly sounding melodic element drunkenly mirroring their screeching multiphonic manipulations. The band might descend into a bed of bombastic low-end and then suddenly, one of them might switch completely off, leaving only scathing highs. Since Borbetomagus rarely perform with percussionists, the momentum of their set tends to race along in a horizontal shower of various articulations, sometimes manifested in short tattoos of crude rhythmic patterns honked out by the reedists. At times the band works within a tactic of group imitation, while other moments are delineated by separate systems of discrete activity from each player. Fifteen minutes into the set, Dietrich began a series of agitated, gobbling flutter-tongued tones and Sauter responded by gargling beer into his mouthpiece. The gestalt didn't last long before both Dietrich completely dropped out, leaving Miller's languid slide guitar and Sauter's aquatic bubbling in a morbid lurch. Soon after the Dietrich re-entred and blew a bagpipe-like set of low, held pitches whle Sauter wound through a surreal, sickly snatch of melody with his chorused and distorted tenor saxophone.
The electrified roar of Borbetomagus seems to have heavy roots in the sound of rock and roll guitar power chording: at times the group evokes nightmarish visions of an infernal Guitar Center where a large pack of DMT-addled Death Metal thugs simultaneously demand to try out BC Rich guitars through Marshall stacks turned up to 10 and refuse to stop. The peaks in their set had a H.R. Giger-like biomechanical, insectoid darkness like some endless, inhuman death-wail . . . The sustained horror of the opening half-hour long piece ended in a slate-gray sheet of thick noise punctuated by a steady series of harmonic tinnabulations from Miller's guitar. the remaining crowd (many of the more soft-eared and unimaginative wimps in the audience had left) demanded an encore. Borbetomagus obliged with a completely different, but equally harrowing 10 minute piece. The music began with a winding phrase from Dietrich, followed by a low flatulence from Miller, before Sauter began to echo the other saxophonist. Abruptly Dietrich switched on several pedals creating a thick bed of bass and white noise. Sauter began to chirp away and Dietrich split off into shrill cries over the shifting vortex of Miller's fuzz. The density increased gradually as the horns continued their separate approaches. Several mintues later, the momentum flagged and Dietrich slammed it back into overdrive with a ridiculously distorted mass of noise. The band seems to value forward motion above all, constantly checking each other sonically to make sure as much frenzy is maintained as possible at any given moment. And so, the race continued as various layers of noise appeared and receded. During the last minute, Sauter set up a volley of quacks, which were attacked and then imitated by Dietrich. Miller roiled benath them as the horns became more fragmented and finally subsided.
- Weasel Walter 11.18.11
"There really is no way to intimate the experience of Borbetomagus. Try explaining to your morning barista or the person in the cubicle next to you that you paid eight dollars to watch three fifty-year-olds bludgeon your earholes for 45 minutes last night. Think about where to begin to describe three men who have spent thirty years assaulting audiences with extended volleys of mutated saxophone and guitar. Inevitably they will ask what kind of music Borbetomagus makes and you will shrug, stutter, and burp up some combination of the terms “noise,” “free,”“jazz,” and “loud.” No order of words you could string together will make a normal person understand your desire to have complete strangers indulge your masochism with electricity.
Unique in their brand of domination, Borbetomagus break you without words. They aren’t here to entertain, they are here to abuse, to taunt. That’s not a performance up on that stage; it’s an amplified conversation between Miller, Dietrich and Sauter you are eavesdropping on. They know you’re listening so they turn up the volume to fuck with you because you’ll never completely understand. You don’t speak their language. You take the bits and pieces you can make out, stick them together any way you can and make your own story. That’s not music, that’s fucking magic."
- Jeff Conklin
Jeff Conklin is the misanthropic host of East Village Radio's most
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