The Bang on a Can All-Stars Strike Again
Putting a boy from a well-known indie rock band front and center on the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ new album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is a marketing move gone awry. The audience for this genre-defying indie classical/art-rock band is probably somewhere in the gypsy rock, or Balkan brass, or jazz or maybe even what’s left of the punk rock camp, as the album cover alludes. Like the idiom he comes from, the pieces by the indie guy are carefree and shallow, and the rest of this album is anything but: even the Evan Ziporyn rearrangements of works by weirdo player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow reach toward communicating an agoraphobe’s angst, even if they don’t quite succeed. Indie rock has been suspect from the git-go and hasn’t been relevant for a long, long time: as it stands in 2012, it’s a ghetto for one-percenters and one-percenter wannabes, the kind of posers who are just as annoying an addition to the indie classical scene (e.g. this year’s Ecstatic Music Festival) as they are in the neighborhoods they’ve suburbanized with their simpering gentrifier sensibility.
But that’s the bad news. The album’s title track is a classic Julia Wolfe showstopper, a series of ascending progressions that grows from agitated, staccato suspense to terrified and anguished, then somber and quickly up again, Ziporyn’s elegaic clarinet rising over the increasingly swirling, insistent intensity of Ashley Bathgate’s cello and Robert Black’s bass. It’s not quite as shattering as Wolfe’s Cruel Sister suite, released last year, but it’s awfully close: as an evocation of the horrors of 9/11, it ranks as one of the most intense, right up there with Robert Sirota’s equally anguished, morbidly picturesque Triptych.
David Lang’s Sunray maintains a brooding mood, with minimalistic, trickily rhythmic piano-and-bass accents over an austerely staccato circular guitar riff that gradually fills out to a rather martial grandeur that wouldn’t be out of place in Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Michael Gordon’s For Madeline, with its slowly sirening strings over echoey, horror-film piano-and-guitar ambience, packs a wallop. Ziporyn’s Music from Shadowbang is a three-part suite. Its opening segment sets his own nimbly scurrying clarinet accents over elegantly dancing bass – with its warmly inviting Brazilian inflections, it’s the most overtly jazz-oriented piece here. That’s followed by Ocean, a terse, pensive art-rock anthem without words, pianist Vicky Chow layering creepily precise water-droplet piano over a hypnotic central hook. The concluding segment grows from absolutely creepy to triumphant in the same manner of the Lang work, bringing this triptych full circle.
Louis Andriessen’s Life (with short films by Marijke van Warmerdam on the enhanced cd) is a moody and extraordinarily vivid work, one of his most straightforwardly melodic, and it too packs a punch, from the pensive, opening string-and-piano tone poem, through hypnotic, nocturnally strolling, elegaic ambience and then expectant, suspensefully minimalist cinematics. The album ends with Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, which builds from menacingly minimalism to a swooping, sweeping, Gilmouresque intensity driven by Mark Stewart’s biting slide guitar and Chow’s fiery, percussive piano in tandem with the bass. For those who don’t already have this (it’s already had a monthlong life as a free download for those with the broadband to haul in the whole thing), this double-disc set is worth owning for the Wolfe piece alone, let alone the substantial works by her old BOAC pals Lang and Gordon and the other first-rate composers here.
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