Tom Hamilton/Bruce Eisenbeil – Shadow Machine (2009)

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by Pico

The real revolutionaries in music never seem to run out of ideas. That can certainly be said of one of the most…if not the most singular voice in improvised music today, guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil. When we first visited his work on this site, it was about a single, long form composition that was improvised over scored music. Next, it was about a power trio that curbstomped the conventional rules of the power trio and replaced them with entirely fresh concepts. The last time it was to examine a quartet led by a keyboardist who used his arsenal of electronic instruments as a foil and catalyst for Eisenbeil’s guitar. This time, Eisenbeil has inserted himself into yet another formidable but stimulating setting, by pairing up with a long time veteran of electronic music, Tom Hamilton.

Hamilton is no stranger to the pursuit of inventing new approaches to sounds in music; he’s been a composer and performer of electronic music with a concentration on analog synthesizers for over forty years. He has been a presence wherever electronics, avant garde, free improvisation, and even classical and opera coincide, and has a long history of collaborating with other leaders in those fields (Peter Summo, David Solier, Michael Schumacher). With the backgrounds of these two, it seemed destined that Hamilton would hook up with Eisenbeil, and their collaborative fruit, Shadow Machine is the result.

The first—and lasting–impression of this music is one of listening in on a conversation between two individuals speaking a foreign language. If you don’t understand the language being spoken you try to figure out what’s being said by their inflections, resonance, gestures, pitch, phrasing and context. By alertly picking up in how each of these facets of the music is being carried out, one may pick up enough pieces of the puzzle to make out the overall message of the conversation. Naturally, that isn’t as easy to figure than if they were speaking instead in a language you understand, but the mystery and challenge adds greatly to the intrigue.

Safe to say, as it is with all Eisenbeil-related projects, your preconceptions about what music is supposed to be should be left at the door. These two are not out to walk down paths already there, they are intent on blazing them. As Eisenbeil explains, “We play distinctive rhythms, textures and sound masses that no other band can play. We play for the sake of SOUND.”

On a more specific level, the sounds being made here are made by instruments everyone has heard before: an analog synthesizer and an electric guitar. But you’re not likely to ever have heard them played like this, especially together. Hamilton bleats, blurts, sustains, hisses and wails a wide array of sounds from his nord modular synthesizer. In direct contrast to the robotic, stilted programmed tones by the German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Hamilton’s synth is a living organism, heck, sometimes it’s a lumbering beast, often setting the overall mood for each piece. Hamilton was also responsible for the designing every patch/sound module, and each sound is in stereo.

Eisenbeil on the other hand, plays a more fleet footed role, often playing to fill in generous voids set up by Hamilton, other times playing against Hamilton’s wall of textures, and yet on other occasions combining with Hamilton to create a strange, composite sound. Eisenbeil was partial to the clarity of his guitar on this record and for good reason: even on my cheap sound system I can pick up every little pluck, strum and ruminative, random phrase.

A track-by-track breakdown of this record is almost useless, as descriptions of compositions typically need points of reference; they are none, here. But each song does have it’s own character: “Dusting Off Dada” is a Eisenbeil creating hushed, splattered sentences upon which Hamiton adds electronic exclamation points, commas and semicolons. “Dryer Mouth” is both abrasive and ambient, with Hamilton exploring the extreme high pitches right up to the upper limits of human hearing. “Shadow Machine” brings to mind the eerie chirps and croaks of a hot, humid night at a swamp. “Mars Fell On Alabama” (which should get at least a Grammy nomination for best song title, if nothing else) finds Hamilton buzzing like a bumblebee around Eisenbeil’s weaving guitar before moving on to more celestial sounds.

There’s other conversations in here, but they are best experienced directly. Going back to the foreign language analogy, you might not know what all is being said; all that really matters is how it sounds at an instinctual level. It’s music for listening to not with your ears, but with your gut. Bruce Eisenbeil and Tom Hamilton have been making gut music for way too long for Shadow Machine not to be regarded as a triumph in experimentalism. The uniqueness of this music and its position way out on the frontier isn’t lost on Bruce Eisenbeil: “I don’t think you’ll hear what we do ever again.”

Shadow Machine was unleashed March 31, courtesy of Pogus Productions. Visit Bruce Eisenbeil’s site here.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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