Full Blast and Friends: Crumbling Brain

Peter Brötzmann’s recent live work seems to be mostly divided between ad hoc, one-off collaborations and a small number of regular touring ensembles. Like all improvisers, Brötzmann thrives on the new and unexpected; but he also values the deep and intuitive understanding that comes from playing with likeminded souls on a recurrent basis. In addition, it’s with his regular touring groups that he gets the opportunity to give full rein to the more intense and overdriven aspects of his art. The Chicago Tentet are the best known example (and I was much amused by the gee-whiz-look-at-us tone of London hipster venue Café Oto’s promotion of the Tentet’s recent London residency there, which conveniently ignored the fact that they have toured all over mainland Europe for a number of years), but there’s also the Hairy Bones quartet and this Full Blast trio with Swiss improvisers Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

Crumbling Brain, its title a typically blunt piece of Brötzmann rhetoric, was recorded live in Berlin in 2008. Being a single vinyl LP it only contains a fraction of the whole concert, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; there’s something to be said for taking this stuff in small doses, on record at least. On this occasion the core trio were joined by none other than Keiji Haino on guitar and vocals, plus trumpeter Peter Evans and, as if one saxophonist wasn’t enough, Mars Williams on reeds.

Out of the starting gate on “Crumbling Brain” the track, Brötzmann confounds expectations with nimble, almost (shock!) danceable saxophone lines. Keeping up with Peter is a challenge for most rhythm sections but these guys are more than a match for him. Pliakas’ style on electric bass is arresting and instantly recognizable, notes discharging constantly like a powerful electric current. Complementing the bassist perfectly, Wertmüller’s percussive attack is driven and unwavering, a vivid contrast to the polyrhythmic approach of another regular Brötzmann sticksman, the Norwegian Paal Nilssen-Love. As the piece unfolds, Brötzmann comes to dominate the soundfield with a sustained and virulent assault on the upper register of his instrument.

On “Battle of Visions”, the German begins by taking a lyrical and tender solo on unaccompanied clarinet. Gradually, the blowing becomes fiercer and more raucous until the rest of the group cut in. Brötzmann switches to sax, his rugged timbre balanced by Williams’ cleaner sound, while Wertmüller shepherds the ensemble with his forceful drumming. Haino and Evans join the party on “Have Your Eyes”, their freeform excavations on guitar and trumpet respectively held together by Pliakas’ insectoid bass.

I found myself wishing for more Brötzmann on side two of the record, which is more or less a showcase for Haino. “Pull Up! Pull Up! Terrain! Terrain!” is an unnerving guitar deconstruction/noise piece, while the aptly titled “Elegance of Darkness” sees the famously perma-black-clad Fushitsusha man scraping guttural and mysterious sounds from the back of his throat. Haino is in danger of outstaying his welcome on the final track “Deathbop”, only for Brötzmann, Pliakas and Wertmüller to storm back into view and annihilate everything in sight. Released on 180g vinyl only in a thick card sleeve.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 20, 2011)

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