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Noh Band @ Sugar Maple

Oct. 28, 2016

Oct. 31, 2016
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Photo credit: Paul Vnuk Jr.
In case anyone attending Friday’s sold-out Noh Band performance at Sugar Maple held the notion that experimental musicians are bereft of a sense of humor about their work, saxophonist Tim Berne disabused it at the onset of the trio’s set.

A couple of dry remarks about the lack of women filling the venue’s back room elicited a hearty round of chuckles from the crowd, which Berne fairly accurately characterized as being comprised of being nine or so men for every woman.

Regardless of the sex of who was filling the seats, the aural explorations Berne, guitarist David Torn and drummer David King created often-feral, less-often-gentle, craggy sheens of cacophony and melody the likes of which weren’t occurring anywhere else within county limits that evening.

Torn is the organizer of the trio, who have yet to release music commercially, and the tonalities of what he was able to conjure from his electric axe doubtless tested the limits of what his instrument is capable of. Rarely did the player venture into the bell-like resonance most commonly associated with jazz. Instead, he swept the terrain between the brittleness of a plucked balalaika, the feedback-laden squalls of certain varieties of extreme metal, and otherworldly surges and burbles of jagged sonority that suggested a dream (or nightmare?) collaboration between John Fahey and Eugene Chadbourne at their most path-finding.

A Torn recital would have been brilliant enough in its probable schizoid extremity. But the times his and Berne’s attacks aligned to create seconds of seamlessness, where it was challenging to discern the individual sounds of the guitar and sax, provided some of the highlights of the threesome’s four pieces spread between two sets. Elsewhere, Berne was occupied in what might have first appeared to be running scales and random noodling on his alto woodwind. Likelier, it wasn’t so scattershot. What couldn’t help but be imprecise, at least by a bit, were the crumpling of a paper bag into a microphone, and later the scrunching of a plastic water bottle in the bell of his sax.

Those percussive accents paled in power, however, to the nearly seemingly unhinged power of King behind his drum set. Metal again provides a metaphor, as his assault on his skins and cymbals sometimes summoned a ferocity often associated with grindcore. The friend in tow with me insisted he has seen at least one drummer more manic, but—my visits to the late Milwaukee Metal Fest excepted—King must at least vie for the most accomplished master of controlled drumming mayhem. At one point, while assaying an infernal paradiddle of sorts, his stocking-capped head tilted to his right and slightly upward, he looked as if he were looking down a fast-approaching tornado of his own creation.

Perhaps the tenor of the times, politically and otherwise, has set the stage for sell-outs for commercial spaces such as Sugar Maple, for extreme music such as this, and for Noh Band specifically, on this particular evening. Or it may be that in certain quarters the blurring of genre boundaries is an exceedingly good thing that can bring people together to experience outlying, adventurous music. Regardless of the reason, it was as heartening to see the healthy turnout for Noh Band as it was exhilarating to hear them. 

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