Time Travel with Secluded Bronte and The Bohman Brothers

Monday 9 August 2021

I know it’s a little early but I’m putting this down as the best prog album of the decade. It’s based on a live gig from 2019 but I don’t care, Queen’s by Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas, has all the mutable energy, serious wit, free-ranging allusions, voracious diversity and wide-open imagination that even first-rank prog claims more often than it delivers. More to the point, the three of them readily play fast and loose with both erudition and stoopidity; they must know which is which, deep down, but they will get you confused. While their Takuroku release The Horns of Andromeda was a audio crazy quilt, Queen’s is an edit made last year out of a gig at Queen’s University, Belfast and so comes with direction and momentum. An extended prologue of incoherent confessional escalates into psychodrama, with the track sequence forming an exquisite corpse of distorted movie cues, musically arresting in their own right while obliquely signalling their scorn for the moods they evoke, rather like The Fall at their most disoriented. The second half brings back spoken vignettes accompanied by field recordings, mood music, call-and-response, détourned folk music and, well, rock’n’roll. It all starts to make sense even as you understand that none of it adds up.

The Merz-like collage method at work in the Bohman brothers’ music can be heard compressed into a concise sound-object in their most recent release, In Their 70s. It’s a dense nugget of lo-fi grey noise, acerbic asides, pawky puppet-show music and strangulated distortion, all apparently recorded on the run with hand-held devices and patched together with a rough but sure sense of what feels right, even if it sounds wrong. It’s arbitrarily snipped in halves, presumably for a very short cassette. Like beauty, the humour is there to be discovered by the audience, more engaging for having been harder won. The supposed casualness of its means and motive seemed like a great encapsulation of their art in full maturity, but in yet another case of not-reading-the-notes I just realised that the material is lifted from the Bohmans’ earliest home recordings, from around the mid 1970s. It’s all in the edit, I tell myself. “The brothers’ aesthetic appears alarmingly fully-formed,” says the promotional blurb. Don’t you hate it when the hype is correct?

Stumblebum Aesthetics and Secluded Bronte

Monday 16 November 2020

There’s radical amateurism and then there’s amateurism that may happen to be radical. I am listening to some defiantly amateurish music-making from the Far East, which is making it quite clear that this is not some highly refined culture from an exotic land which I Just Don’t Get. Xu Shaoyang’s pair of Live from underpass recordings, made in Beijing and Taipei, greet bemused pedestrians with brief group improvisations in etiolated song structures, described in the blurb as “ramshackle” and “non-dogmatic”. I still don’t get it, and assume that there’s a pointed pointlessness to it as with much Soviet art, where a lot of faff is needed to encrypt stuff a dedadent Westener would take for granted, so that said Westener then complacently assumes there’s nothing more to it. The Beijing gig includes recorders and kazoos, those perennial signifiers of the amateur, while the Tapei gig buzzes with electricity. I would gladly attend either set live, if only to be outside at a gig on a balmy evening again, preferably with access to beer.

Amateurism becomes a curse when it is elevated as a surrogate for authenticity, that most overvalued of artistic qualities. One has to convince the audience that there is no reason to do things any better, lest one be accused, falsely or not, of playing the stumblebum. Firas Khnaisser and Ali Robertson’s Inspiring Capital is so laid-back that with slightly less effort it could disappear altogether. Recorded in an Edinburgh park during a festival time rendered inert by Covid, it presents the two local musicians simply enjoying the unexpecetd peace. Meanwhile in Huddersfield, the new release from Pressure Carcass, titled Yeast Queen, collects one hundred and twenty-something phone recordings made around town. The sound quality is generic mono, the content displays a Duchampian indifference. It presents life as drama with the boring bits left in, leaving you to decide if it’s instructive or a distraction. If there’s something you want to hear again, it’s buried somewhere in those 150 minutes (advance publicity promised us three hours, so I assume some curatorial discernment took place).

On the other hand, there’s Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas. They may seem amateurish and homespun in their noisemaking and slapdash in their execution, but their collection The Horns of Andromeda is an expertly paced collage of finely crafted sounds. Like true sophisticates, their complexity is worn lightly, with a transparency that lands each brief track with an immediate impact on the listener yet sustains repeated exposure as greater depths and connections are revealed. Extracted from various performances, each musician’s experience and finely tuned sensibility comes to the fore. The abundant verbiage carries authority even as it steers into gibberish, the funny bits work through sly self-awareness. Most importantly, the self-indulgent, insider fascination with craft is entirely absent here, as divergent genres and techniques are fully embraced and then dumped again with equal enthusiasm. If there’s irony here, then it is more seductive than alienating. At odds with the vast bulk of free improv, it delivers what is so frequently, misguidedly, incorrectly promised: surprise and delight.