Whilst it’s broadly wise to heed advice and not judge a book by its cover, there are of course many things whose external appearances are directly indicative of their contents. One particularly succinct example of this has been the growing output of the Chicago based multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams. Under the banner of his Natural Information Society ensemble, the music has been visualized in a series of textile-like graphic sleeves. In fact, the images for the releases to date – Represencing, Magnetoception and Simultonality – are paintings by an artist that just happens to be the group’s harmonium player Lisa Alvardo. These stunning images appear like crops of enormous surfaces, packed with interlocking diamonds, morphing half-patterns, colours, blocks, details and edges.
It’s easy to see these visual forms appear as an approximation of the sound within the packages. The ever-present rhythmic quality of the music meshing together to fill the sound in psychedelically formed blocks. Even the fractal mediation of the video to Sideways Fall from Simultonality joined the dots between music and similar occurrences within our everyday in a stunning and simplistic way. It was telling that Simultonality slowly guided the listener from the impossible groovy interplay of the opener Maroon Dune towards the much more fractured and free-playing abstraction of the album’s closer 2128 ½. And yet, the way the music was presented gave hint to some form of underlying grid. The knotted space felt like it was supported by some undeniable cosmic scaffolding.
This time with Excavations 1, we have just one sound source – the double bass. The sounds the instrument makes, and the pockets of silence within which these islands of sound sit offer an apparent monochromatic universe. And the visual logic applied to this release again offers a very accurate indication of the forms the music takes. The close up tonal image of dried flaking paintwork marries beautifully with this challenging layer of sonic activity.
The clipped looping snatches of the opener Unexplained place the listener’s head inside the very tip of the microphone recording the event. The strings are manipulated in a curious way, creating tiny mirages of brassy simmers.
Only the very brief Branches tumbles around with those North African inflections Abrams often trances out on other records. The approach here feels like a flythrough of the instrument, very little falling into the pulse of his wider work. Despite the single sound source, a strange new arsenal of textures and depth prevails. The sound shifts around like a timber workshop, road works and buzzing insects before climbing into a fragmented ascent in the final moments of Buzzards.
Lingo starts like a mutated electronic signal that bounces around barking dogs and a busy farmyard. The tension of a bow, slowly exploring microscopic edges in the strings as new voids open up. Aeroplanes hang overhead, and cavernous expanses render – all in a sonic space no bigger than a pin head.
Excavations 1 is a bold exercise in how much Abrams can develop within this instrument’s incredibly limited parameters. Normally, the double bass is an immoveable anchor within ensemble playing; it provides the gravity as an undercurrent to other more dextrous sound generators. Only rarely has this instrument been as exposed as it is here. Clearly the double bass has its own sonic world that’s far richer than most have cared to examine. It’s clear this disc is a creative challenge, part of his ongoing open-minded exploration of sonic possibilities.
The buoyant groove of his other work is largely absent here and this may be a disappointment to some listeners. Tune in though and the music here has a strange and bewitching internal momentum. Clearly, a fundamental ingredient in solo improvisation from a musician is the listening to the instrument, knowing when it’s time to pursue a rhythmic element, when to let things twist, turn… and when to leave things to float or decay…
As the title points towards, Excavations 1 somehow manages to extract and engage in equal measures. I guess 40 minutes of solo ‘off the grid’ double bass exploration might have some listeners heading elsewhere. But I’d wholeheartedly point to this as an invaluable chapter in an increasingly great book. And the 1 suggests, it’s potentially something Abrams will continue with other instruments. Yet again, the cover says it all beautifully…