BERLIN DRUMS - REVIEWS
Berlin Drums (Absinth 03 4x3" CD-R) is the third in Absinth's elegant limited edition Berlin series. This edition
brings together Burkhard Beins, Tony Buck, Steve Heather and Eric Schaefer - all percussionists active on the city's
improvised music scene. As with previous releases (Berlin Reeds and Berlin Strings), each musician is given a 21
minute mini CD-R.
The overall length is about that of a conventional CD, but the split format is well suited to single instrument improvisation, as the separateness of the various statements is preserved.
Burkhard Beins is known for his work with Perlonex and Anglo-German trio The Sealed Knot. One of the strengths of Beins's playing is his ear for the strange. His piece begins with several minutes of dense cymbal work and moves suddenly into a high pitched drone. Then he explores rattling noises that could come from a field recording of ancient agricultural machinery. The track slides off down the plughole with a liquid gurgling accompanied by bells.
Tony Buck, another resourceful improviser, is familiar to many as the sinuous percussive presence in Australian trio the Necks. His playing on Berlin Drums is restless and eventful. Nothing is allowed to settle into place for long. Intricate sequences of percussive incidents are combined with textural explorations. For one intense and tonally rich stretch, Buck plays resonant toms against cymbals - his sounds crowding around an understated pulse. After 21 minutes, the listener has travelled a long way along both rhythmic and timbral axes. Disc three is given to another Australian, Steve Heather, who uses percussion, some of it programmed, alongside abrasive analogue scratches and squawks. The vibe is immediately very different to that on either Beins's or Buck's contributions. The piece is strange in this context, bringing a dose of minimal repetitive beat play, recalling Thomas Brinkmann or Richie Hawtin, into the improvisational orbit. This is a surprising inclusion but one that points to the fertility of the Berlin scene. Eric Schaefer plays zither and percussion, squeezing six short pieces into his disc. His playing is wide open, taking up and discarding idioms easily and including kit work, bowed scrapes and delicate bell play. As with the other three performances, 'percussion' doesn't begin to describe the expansiveness of the music.
- Will Montgomery, The Wire -
Berlin Reeds, Berlin Strings, and now Berlin Drums: as before, it's a limited-edition set of four three-inch discs
packaged in a hand-sewn, hand-painted sleeve. The champ this time is Burkhard Beins, whose contribution is rather
alarmingly titled "NADIR". The rich cymbal wash of the opening is lovely, but lasts so long it becomes almost
unbearable: listening to it is like standing under a running tap for seven minutes on end. Next comes another
gentle endurance test - a pair of wavery sine waves. Gradually a few grittier sounds are admitted, including what
sounds like the amplified gnashing of teeth; and this all paves the way for an honest-to-goodness blast of noise
at 15'49". There's a welcome band of silence, a little flicker of noise, and then we reach the piece's long
rain-hitting-pavement conclusion, which disperses among the sounds of tingling chimes.
There's not much of that sort of wordless poetry on the other three discs. Tony Buck's "Honey/Tongues" is broken up into discrete episodes. On the whole I prefer those that involve big washes of sound - crickly-crackly noises over a cavernous belly-of-the-beast drone, an outbreak of metallic clatter, cymbals rubbed against each other - to the fussy, pattering ones, such as the overlong central episode resembling a garrulous typewriter's soliloquy. I'm also left wondering about the logic of the piece as a whole, though Buck does stitch things together somewhat by briefly reprising material near the end of the piece. The other two discs are unexpectedly poor. Steve Heather's "Electric Bongo Bongo" actually manages to be more annoying than its title, spending most of its time guying the listener with dumb-as-a-post percussion loops. Eric Schaefer's disc is the only one to feature a set of short tracks rather than a 20-minute piece. The three pieces grouped under the title "Radius 1" are mini-improvs generously seasoned with toy xylophone, too short to go anywhere in particular. "No Brain, No Gain" seems to be a parody of rock'n'roll bombast, offering call-and-response exchanges between surly, distorted guitar - actually, amplified zither - and beefy drums. "Don't Tell Morton" is the longest section of the disc, though it's not any more substantial: part two, for instance, is nine minutes of listening to your neighbour's windchimes. As anyone who's lived next to a neighbour with windchimes can attest, it's not the most soothing sound in the world. For the sake of the excellent Beins piece and the pretty-good Buck piece I wish the other two discs were better: as things stand, Berlin Drums is something of a curate's egg.
- ND, paristransatlantic -
Third in the series following the reed and string selections from the same
city, "Berlin Drums" likewise offers four 3" discs from individual
musicians, this time of the percussive persuasion. As before, producer
Marcus Liebig casts a fairly wide stylistic net, though not always to the
Two of the four recordings, however, are excellent. Burkhard Beins begins "Nadir" with several minutes of pure brushed cymbals and gongs, a standard enough gambit but one which, when played with as much sensitively as is heard here, can generate wave upon wave of luscious overtones and deep resonances in which you feel you can wallow forever. Beins, though, quickly pulls the carpet out from under you about a third of the way through, thrusting you into a large, relatively empty space occupied only by a thin high tone and a handful of random clatters. As abrupt as it is, there's an invigorating feel to the transition, as if you've been shoved from a warm, humid room into a spare, chilly one. After several minutes, you are evicted from the abode entirely, tossed into a back alley where rainwater falls from overhead gutters and the hum of an unseen highway vaguely fills the background, punctuated by the odd bell tone. "Nadir" is a lovely, unsettling performance.
Tony Buck's powerful "Honey/Tongues" also begins with pulsating gong work, but swiftly moves into a rich welter of stroked and pummeled percussion that mutates in an almost liquid fashion throughout the piece. A section toward the middle contains more overt stick playing than one might expect but Buck, by manipulating the timbre of the struck items and generating a woody, semi-tonal quality, maintains a level of interest above and apart from the rhythms employed. Still, the general surging character of "Honey/Tongues" is never far away, a strong ebb and flow, push and pull, that carries the piece forward with irresistible conviction. It eventually billows outward, scraped gongs emitting near-elephantine roars, pounded metal erupting and dissipating into the air.
And then to something completely different, "Electric Bongo Bongo" by Melbourne-based Steve Heather. It begins enticingly enough with subtle scratchings and crumplings, only to suddenly veer into a protracted rhythm, fairly regular and mechanical, that, while presumably derived from any number of homemade, "junkyard" percussion instruments, doesn't have enoughinherent depth to sustain much interest. Heather elaborates on it a bit andsends the rhythm through some series of variations but, for this listener, few of the beats were sufficiently intriguing to want to hear for more than a few moments. Though Heather provides all manner of varied, even baroque, ornamentation, the basic unconvincing framework of the piece shows through.When the stolid, rock-like burps reappear, there's a sense of falling backon easy answers instead of taking conceptual risks.
Of the four musicians presented here, only Eric Schaefer offers more than one track, though his three pieces (two of them further subdivided into sections) blend together pretty seamlessly. There's something oddly retro about his work. Using a fairly straightforward, though very delicate approach, he's somewhat reminiscent of the British free percussion school of the late 60s and early 70s, though perhaps with a bit more rhythmic emphasis. One can almost imagine some of these tracks having been performed by, say, Jamie Muir around 1972. Maybe even Jon Christenson on a good day. He introduces what I take to be an electrified zither on "No brain, no pain", accompanied by some rote drumming, but the result is a bit too much like a Han Bennink outtake for my taste. The three sections of "Don't tell Morton" revert to the soft use of bells, chimes and other "small" metal objects, all rather attractive in a way, but all also verging on the insubstantial (thought he very last section generates some mystery). Not bad, but not memorable either.
"Berlin Drums" remains very much worth purchasing for the Beins and Buck sets (not to mention the continuing gorgeous and unique packaging!). While survey compilations will almost necessarily vary in quality, I'd love to hear just a bit more consistency in this series, the next of which will be "London Strings".
- Bagatellen -
Following on the heels of Berlin Reeds and Berlin Reeds, Berlin Drums is
the third installment of the Absinth label's quirky series of limited
edition releases. Like those sets, producer Marcus Liebig has picked a
dicey strategy. He chooses four Berlin-based musicians who share a
location and instrumental family rather than any particular aesthetic
(which is even more in evidence on this release than the previous two.)
Each musician is given a 3" CD and the whole thing is packaged in a
hand-painted and assembled sleeve in an edition of 200. Though the
intent is noble, and the series itself full of some strong pieces, as
with many compilations, the results are maddeningly uneven. That is
particularly the case this go-round. There's some genuinely dazzling
Burkhard Beins has proven to be one of those players delivering
consistently intriguing releases, and his piece here draws on his
interests in combining percussion and tape composition. Beins stretches
and chops time,juxtaposing extended waves of sizzling cymbals with
piercing sine waves, scrubbed percussive textures, bursts of static, and
long stretches of silence. He wraps the 21-minute piece up with what
sounds like a manipulated tape of rain on a city street providing
somewhat of a reverse image of the starting wash of cymbals. Tony Buck's
piece starts with the low rumble of bass drum and cymbals and slowly
adds in percussive clatter.
The extended piece develops episodically, opening up to a central
section of ping-ponging patterns that comes as close to a "drum solo" as
you'll find on any of the four CDs. But even here, there is more of an
ear toward controlling density and timbres than of shaping time with
rhythm. With the electro-clatter of Steve Heather's "Electro Bongo
Bongo" things really take a slide. The herky-jerky looping patterns are
far too hackneyed and, though that may be the point, they quickly wear
thin. Eric Schaefer is the only one to work with smaller pieces,
extending his drum kit with an electric zither. This is the sort of
brittle, textured percussion that fits neatly into the European
tradition. And though Schaefer's technique is impressive, the pieces
never quite seem to get beyond a show of facility. Still, for all of its
ups and downs, this series is worth checking out. Next up, Absinth heads
to London for London Strings and the line-up of Angharad Davies, Rhodri
Davies, Phil Durrant & Mark Wastell looks promising.
- Signal to Noise -
Beins sirrende und dröhnende Effekte, seine bruitistische Ader, aber auch seine
Lust am Haptischen und wie er zwischen Sinnesreiz und V-Effekt pendelt sind
besonders schön eingefangen auf "Nadir", seinem Beitrag zu Berlin Drums & Percussions
(Absinth Records 003, 4 x 3" mCD), dem Nachfolger zu Berlin Reeds und Berlin Strings
und Vorgänger von London Strings.
- Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy -