A lot of avant-garde bands will toss a bunch of disparate stuff together in hopes that they come up with exotic combinations that work. The Gunnelpumpers do that, too, but the difference with these guys is that just about everything they try actually does work.
This Chicago-based collective consist of musicians drawn from the classical, rock and jazz worlds, and their eclectic mix of avant classical, rock-jazz, experimental rock and world fusion is a delectable distillation of its participants’ backgrounds. It’s guided by double bassist Douglas Johnson, who leads a drummer (Doug Brush), two percussionists (Bob Garrett and co-founder Randy Farr), a guitarist (John Meyer) and two more bassists (Michael Hovnanian and Tom Mendel).
Montana Fix is their forth release, a sprawling, 19 song set that barely fits on one CD disc, recorded for the most part live in the studio with hardly any overdubs. It’s dense, complex and provocative, with this lofty game plan executed well…not attributes usually attached to recordings made in just two days in the studio with little studio trickery. There is lots of harmonic development without a lot of chord changes; songs just flow with subtle and natural mood shifts and careful layering of sound components. With all those basses in the mix, you’d think it would be bottom heavy, but it isn’t quite that way: most of the time, these basses are bowed, creating a cool, organic drone that’s often blended in easily with Golombisky’s “likeable noise” (electronic effects). Combined with exotic percussion, the Gunnelpumpers have truly created a sound of their own that’s hard to categorize.
You get a good sense of their signature when taking in a songs like “Naghra,” with its ambling, odd signature groove and a screaming metal guitar off in the distance, while a roar is created with electronic effects and the bank o’ basses. That same dark mood pervades “Earthling,” made to match the natural, super-low resonance of the Earth. It’s truly earthen tone, a drone with wavering bowed bass, a little bit of electronics and that other-side-of-the-earth beat provided by Brush’s Thai rain drum, an electro-acoustic world fusion ambient pleasure. Over a relentless jungle beat, “D’bass’d” features Johnson on a Clevinger upright bass letting loose a savage solo that sounds akin to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. The three bassists alone convene on the modern classical piece “Hip Hip Beret,” which begins with a defined harmonic figure and shifting roles before breaking down into abstraction.
The rock side comes out most vividly on two tracks: “Puzzle Dust” is riff-based but with the riff coming from a bowed bass instead of guitar. “Ouroboros” is all out jazz-rock, containing the most energetic groove of album, but what makes it unique are the brooding double basses offering an intriguing contrast.
The lengthy title piece is likely the centerpiece performance. “Montana Fix” is influenced by the eminent experimental classical composer, John Cage. A low, foreboding pulse with eerie industrial noises and an acoustic bass hum all around, with subtle variations hinting at change around the corner. Finally, a galloping Middle Eastern styled rhythm emerges almost eight minutes in and a bowed bass dances playfully upon it.
There are several more interesting side alleys they go down not mentioned here (like the song played entirely with beer bottles). So much so, they rarely stay on the main path, but that’s what makes Montana Fix such a thrilling listen. The Gunnelpumpers manage to make refreshingly original music when we’ve thought everything has already been done before.
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Montana Fix goes on sale July 24, by Spiritflake Music. Visit the Gunnelpumpers’ website for more info.
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