Even before the play button is pressed, Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society’s new album delivers two messages with crystal clarity. The first leaps from the black, green, and gold-patterned graphic bleeding off the sleeve in all directions. The second is in the unwieldy Venn-like title Simultonality — perhaps a mutation of “simultaneous” and “tonality”?
This album continues the broad conceptual framework of Magnetoception and Represencing. That this new sleeve replicates these forms, but treated in flat colours, only adds to the visual and aural overlap at play here.
The work of Joshua Abrams has always reminded me of the composer Morton Feldman. In the academic paper Feldman the Rug-maker, Weaving For John Cage, music theorist Meg Wilhoite asserts, “There is an intimate connection between the rugs Feldman admired and many of the pieces he wrote in the last fifteen years of his life”. This, to my ears, is Morton Feldman’s latter-day garage band.
“These rugs set up an overall effect of sameness by systematically repeating a set of patterns, while at the same time disrupting this effect by slightly altering the components of those patterns.
“Similarly, Feldman wrote long works that produce a sense of skewed sameness by writing musical patterns that repeat many times, but change in intonation and/or rhythm almost imperceptibly.”
With Simultonality, we are invited into an extended exploration of interlocking sounds that take us on a musical carpet ride… Of course, there is a cool, conceptual air, but the reality, the actual music, is exhilaratingly beautiful and thoroughly human.
That may be because the music was created in a live studio setting, with a varied grouping of players. Everyone is a selfless component in the overall composition, knitted together in the construction of a vast aural textile.
Individual sounds fall Tetris-like into each other, as if every vacant space was designed to fit its neighbour.
A sound repeated is rhythm, and in the hands of committed musicians, there’s an opportunity to play with similar elements that mesh in ways that illuminate. With a high degree of subtlety, the repetition weaves pulsing textures. Individual sounds fall Tetris-like into each other, as if every vacant space was designed to fit its neighbour.
Simultonality is a palette of different densities and in its opening seconds throws the listener into its most rock-based posture. Maroon Dune has existed forever before the listener is invited in. Imagine the funkiest Fela Kuti drumbeat bleached in sunny Tropicália, and add harmonium wheeze.
The album moves through a series of fairly static blocks of sound, each with different densities and colours. Gaps and windows begin to appear as the album progresses; the music becomes more exposed and net-like. A slither of pristine electronic sound introduces the gamelan-infused gem St. Cloud. Stringed instruments create patches of thick shadow as the sound tumbles forward.
You could argue that any one of these sound passages conveys the title concept or the sleeve graphic.
Background info from the label suggests the drummers (one in each channel) are approximating CAN’s Vitamin C in the album’s 12-minute-long Sideways Fall. While it becomes apparent later on in the track, I had already joined the dots to something else. John Cale and Terry Riley’s Church of Anthrax is often maligned, but its unique double-drummed organ-led grooves and various pulsations have been gloriously and loving revisited here.
The last track 2128 1/2 has its elements interlocking in a way that now resembles free jazz. Threads are loosened, the pattern is less conspicuous, but the proceeding tracks have all helped map out that, there is still nothing but glorious structure here.
For me, Simultonality sees Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society expand these approaches into a more varied setting than on previous albums. You could argue that any one of these sound passages conveys the title concept or the sleeve graphic.
The same concept could well have been attempted with cold digital means, and that would somehow miss the point. The organic, tiny imperfections only reinforce the magic at play here. Clearly, it’s a beautiful and exhilarating way of celebrating the avant garde, and a showcase of telepathic group musicianship. Importantly, it never fails to welcome the listener with warmth and humanity.
Review orginally appeared in Brown Noise Unit March 2017