Posts Tagged ‘Norman Westberg’

Room40 – 17th February 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

The title carries an implicit connotation of juxtaposition. It’s also a direct reference to the 2011 text by Lauren Berlant, which explores power and the ‘cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted’ and the collapse of the liberal-capitalist dream.

English explains the album’s context as follows: ‘Over the course of creating the record, we collectively bore witness to a new wave of humanitarian and refugee crisis (captured so succinctly in the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s tiny body motionless on the shore), the black lives matter movement, the widespread use of sonic weapons on civilians, increased drone strikes in Waziristan, Syria and elsewhere, and record low numbers of voting around Brexit and the US election cycle, suggesting a wider sense of disillusionment and powerlessness. Acutely for me and other Australians, we’ve faced dire intolerance concerning race and continued inequalities related to gender and sexuality. The storm has broken and feels utterly visceral. Cruel Optimism is a meditation on these challenges and an encouragement to press forward towards more profound futures.’

For Cruel Optimism, English has enlisted, amongst others, Swans contributors Norman Westberg and Thor Harris. As their recent excursions outside Swans demonstrate, they are both musicians capable of magnificently nuanced sound – a stark contrast to the shuddering power of Swans in full force. They bring subtle, understated performances to the pieces on which they feature here. Tony Buck and Chris Abrahams of The Necks are also featured, although again, their input is suitably muted and the line-up is far from overplayed in the promotional materials which accompany the album.

A sense of contrast and contradiction is woven into the fabric of the soundscapes which combine to form Cruel Optimism, as soft layers drift down over coarser, grainer sonic terrains beneath. There are moments of darkness, shadowy, vaguely unsettling but not overtly eeriy or horrific, tempered equally by moments of tranquillity and light ‘Hammering a Screw’, as its title suggests, is an awkward, jarring piece. Sinister chords jam and jolt abrasively, rupturing the soft tissue of sound which hangs almost invisibly in the air while fluttering heartbeats pulse erratically way down in the mix. ‘Negative Drone’ rumbles ominously, a formless, amorphous cloud of sound which bleeds into the must-like atmospherics of ‘The Somnambulist’. The album ends with the entwined drones of ‘Moribund Territories’, which offers a tone of bleakness which intimates the dissipation of optimism in the face of a chilling future.

Writing in October 2016, English described the album as an album of ‘protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures’. Depressingly, those futures have arrived, and we are now living in dark, dark times. But for all of the turbulence which motivated the compositions and the underlying anxiety poured into their realisation, Cruel Optimism is a beautifully calm album, in the main – or at least, it maintains a calm exterior. As such it’s a work of peaceful protest, which succeeds in making itself heard in a loud, violent, and ugly world.

 

RM470_Lawrence_English_Cruel_Optimism

Advertisements

Hallow Ground – HG1605 – 1st June 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

While MRI, released by Room40 in February, was a reissue of a 2012 album, The All Most Quiet contains new material in the shape of two long-form tracks. Like its predecessor, The All Most Quiet is radically different from his contributions to Swans. The fact he’s actually found the time to compose and record new material is impressive in itself: the latest Swans album, The Glowing Man was released on 10 June, and the two-hour colossus of a sonic experience was developed and recorded off the back of a full year spent touring its predecessor, To Be Kind. Given the duration and intensity of a Swans live show, it’s remarkable that Norman Westberg’s had time to piss and still has the energy to stand, let along record a new album. But then, perhaps his solo work has therapeutic benefits, and affords him the opportunity to decompress after long days spent in the Swans pressure-cooker.

The All Most Quiet is, as the title suggests, not a loud album. It is also a gentle album. But that doesn’t mean it lacks dynamic tension, and while it is calming, it’s also not completely undemanding.

The title track starts its long, meandering journey as a mid-range drone which pulsates subtly. The tonal changes which emerge are gradual. It’s easy to let it simply drift by, and it’s pleasant enough to appreciate in this way, but attentive listening brings its rewards. The introduction of new layers, textures and tones, shifts in the scale and pace of oscillations change the mood, subtly, inconspicuously, but no less definitely. And while The All Most Quiet bears no obvious resemblance to Swans, it is possible to hear a certain correlation in the way Westberg builds on slow-burning transitions to hypnotic effect. There are hints of ominousness and darkness, but the sense of scale and grandeur seeps through the very fabric of the sound. The second track, ‘Sound 2’ maintains the atmosphere, and the absence of any clear highs or lows builds a tension beneath the calm surface.

The All Most Quiet once again highlights the trait I most admire in Norman Westberg’s approach to guitar laying: patience. No heroics. No sense of the ego common to guitar layers. His playing is focused on achieving texture and an overall listening experience. Whether he’s peeling off shards of noise, as on early Swans’ releases or creating more sculpted sound, as on their later releases, and in his solo recordings, at no point dos one ever find oneself thinking ‘what fretwork! What guitar wizardry!’ In fact, much of the time, Westberg’s guitar doesn’t sound like a guitar, particularly on The All Most Quiet. And for the most part, the sound is too immersive for one to really think at all.

 

Norman Westberg - The All Most Quiet

 

Norman Westberg Online

Room40 – RM474

Christopher Nosnibor

Sometimes, this reviewing business is personal. How can it not be? Surely no-one can get into music reviewing without being a mad rabid fan of music above all else. Sure, some may do it for the ligs, but in a non-paying market, first and foremost, it has to be for the love. Yes, I speak personally here. I’m certainly not in it for the money.

I’ve been a fan of Swans since I was in my teens in the early 90s, after being passed a recording of Children of God. It’s an album which will remain with me forever, for so many reasons, not least of all the juxtaposition of thunderous intensity and elegant beauty. I was quick to seek out – and spend my money on – their back catalogue, with Cop proving to be nothing short of pivotal in my musical education.

But as much as I developed a bewildered admiration for Michael Gira both as a lyricist and an artist in the broader sense, I also came, fairly quickly, to appreciate the guitar playing of Norman Westberg. His playing was stark, minimalist, brutal, and seeing him perform live in the current incarnation of the band only cemented my respect. I can’t think of a guitarist less concerned with heroics, who better appreciates the idiom that less is more. He’s nonchalant, cool, peeling off shuddering chords at infinite decibels and grinding out the same riff for what feels like an eternity requires discipline and appreciation of the bigger picture, but more than anything, it has impact.

MRI is not about grinding repetitive chord sequences and squalls of feedback, and as such, reveals another side of Westberg’s guitar playing. If anything, listening to MRI has only furthered my appreciation. Building droning ambience from oscillating feedback and eternally sustaining notes which hum and simmer, MRI is subtle, soft and understated.

In fact, MRI is very much a response and intentional counterpoint to the punishingly high-volume output he’s spent much of his career producing. As the press release explains, MRI is the result of Westberg’s encounters with the heavy medical scanning technology following his recognising diminished hearing. “I started to notice a loss of hearing in my right ear,” Westberg explains, “and decided that it was high time that I had it checked out by a professional. The audiologist confirmed the uneven hearing loss and recommended an MRI. The purpose of the MRI was to make sure that there was not something other than my own aural misadventures causing the uneven loss.” Described in the press blurb as ‘a coda to this experience’, and as ‘a collection of reductive rolling guitar pieces that are embedded strongly in the American Minimalism tradition’, MRI was recorded in 2012, and appears here remastered, post-produced and augmented by a brand new piece, ‘Lost Mine’, recorded in 2015 as an echo of the processes that led to the original recordings.

MRI doesn’t sound like a guitar album, but in many ways, that’s one of its great strengths. It’s testament to Norman Westberg’s unconventional approach to playing the instrument, and reasserts his significance. But, perhaps most importantly, it’s a wonderful and extremely soothing sonic experience.

Print

 

Norman Westberg – MRI at Room 40