WILL GUTHRIE / JEROME NOETINGER - Face Off - Erstwhile Records (usa) - ERST 064CD
Jerome Noetinger plays tape machine Revox, and electronics
Will Guthrie plays drums, percussion, microphones, and electronics
The title and the artwork – a crappy drawing of a lone cowboy, presumably en route to a shootout – suggest a confrontation, which French electronician Noetinger and Australian percussionist Guthrie quickly supply. The action-packed first two tracks, tellingly titled “Snide” and “Creep Show”, both crackle with barely suppressed friction, firing out sudden eruptions and unexpected incidents. They’re followed by a succession of succinct, fragmented concrète-Improv dialogues, less obviously fractious though just as tense.
Tension and concision – 12 tracks in 37 minutes, the longest a hardly epic eight – are two of the pairing’s principal virtues. At least some of this material seems to be drawn from lengthier recordings (a couple of the tracks run together seamlessly), but has been prudently edited into epigrammatic snippets which are nothing if not to the point. Another is their control of pacing and activity levels. Guthrie is particularly impressive, counterpointing Noetinger’s often dramatic interjections – blurts and spurts of tape machine hiss and electronic distortion – with cleverly simple rhythmic ripostes.
Marked by some wonderfully tangled negotiations over momentum and balance of power, both players’ improvising is sharply nuanced from start to finish. The atmosphere is one of persistent unease. Even Noetinger’s field recordings of rain and thunder provide only brief respite. At its best – the febrile textures of “Slo-Nife”, the spiky exchanges of “Le Analise” and “Carpet Burn” – the interplay is so acutely unstable it feels almost flammable.
I often lament knowing anything about an album before I listen to it, as anything residing beyond the bounds of the recording itself is mere anecdote. These anecdotes become lenses that tint the recording in an externally imposed light. In my ideological fantasy land, I want to decipher what I’m hearing, free of unnecessary weight. I concede that this is a strange way to start a review for Noetinger and Guthrie’s Erstwhile Records release, FACE OFF, but hear me out…
I am not privy to the means by which this album came into existence, therefore there is no overriding external imposition upon the recording. But the title, FACE OFF, keeps looping around my brain as I listen. As I reflect upon the album outside of its aural space, I keep thinking ‘FACE OFF’. By virtue of the title alone, my impression of the recording is one of conflict between Guthrie and Noetinger’s sound sources. And then, I’m forced to confront my own introduction to the style of electro-acoustic improvisation exemplified by Erstwhile. Being unfamiliar with music of this nature at the time, I needed an entry point. For me, that entry point was an overzealous focus on the interactions between the musicians themselves, rather than an overall absorption of the recording. It was my way of accepting what I was hearing, given how far removed it was from my understanding of music. Gradually, as I became more accustomed to what I was hearing, a more holistic understanding began to replace my superficial entry point.
And now, all these years later, I find myself confronting a former version of myself. What seems like a rather ponderous way to introduce an album review, actually lies at the core of my relationship to music… my personal evolution as a listener. None of this detracts from the quality of FACE OFF in any way. I’m merely struck by the imposition a mere title can cause. It’s difficult to divorce yourself from context, whether real or imagined.
I classify myself as a fan of both Jèrôme Noetinger and Australian native, Will Guthrie (in particular Guthrie, whose micro-album, SPEAR, is an all-time favourite of mine). So this pairing was a tantalising notion. Noetinger utilizes a Revox tape machine and electronics, while Guthrie contributes percussion and electronics. Together the two produce a sound that harks back to the earliest days of tape and electronic experimentation. But this isn’t a retro excursion by any means. One gets the sense that both Noetinger and Guthrie are intimately familiar with the history of their respective sound sources and use it as a means of producing something unmistakably modern and exciting.
In the brief 37 minutes in which FACE OFF exists, the two fill the sound canvas to the brim. This isn’t the stripped back electro-acoustic improv your grandparents are listening to. This is a polymorphic cluster of activity that, at times, leaves you breathless. The sounds whip across the stereo spectrum, prompting your speakers to beat like arrhythmic hearts. Guthrie’s percussion is some of the most frenetic I’ve heard from him, fighting with the electronic squeals and buzzes. Noetinger’s tape manipulations clutter and shake, forming a tense foundation, collapsing and reforming.
And this brings me back to my introduction. Whether it’s because the title of the recording suggests I should do so or not, I sense a great conflict between Guthrie and Noetinger. The two create a sonic banter that on occasion becomes bobbery. The power of this recording seems to arise from the very thing I assumed was neophyte listener’s folly on my part. This album is interaction… the drama of the fight. But what a fight it is. The results are exhilarating and downright fun. The series of events that usually unfold when I listen to a new Erstwhile release starts at confusion (occasionally disdain), and almost always arrives at transcendence (hello a s o). But this isn’t the case with FACE OFF. It’s immediately enjoyable, but never superficial. The pleasure increases with each subsequent listen, but the experience of the album doesn’t necessarily evolve into something new. My opinion of the album remains the same now as it did from the moment I pressed play… but that experience is love. It confronts my supposition that this field of music should affect the listener in a certain way. I can enjoy this for what it is without feeling as though I’ve missed something, and furthermore, the recording itself doesn’t have to suffer as a result.
FACE OFF isn’t as grandiose as other Erstwhile releases of late, which is primarily the reason I wanted to focus my attention on reviewing it. I feel that it could easily become subsumed by what may be considered ‘more important’ releases in the Erstwhile catalogue. But it would be a great shame to overlook this album, because it has a lot to offer and highlights two great musicians at the top of their game. And by focusing on a more immediate release such as this one, it is also my hope that it could become something of a gateway into this area of music for the uninitiated. I remember what it was like starting off with Duos for Doris and Improvised Music from Japan. It’s a deep end that can easily overwhelm.
In conclusion, don’t mistake FACE OFF for something minor and superficial (I hope my review hasn’t suggested as such). It’s not. It’s every bit as nuanced and rewarding as the bulk of Erstwhile’s releases. FACE OFF merely offers its rewards a little more easily and for that, I think it’s worthy of celebration. Very highly recommended and a great way to introduce yourself to a style of music I find enormously fulfilling.