Boxhead Ensemble, an impromptu project of the Chicago rock avantgarde, involved members of Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, Eleventh Dream Day plus Jim O'Rourke and Ken Vandermark, all assembled by composer Michael Krassner to score the soundtrack for a film.
The resulting album, Dutch Harbor (Atavistic, 1997), was a collection of austere, erudite, low-key and bleak instrumental improvisations. They were more than vignettes of village life: they were miniature concertos of stunning sophistication.
The Introduction was high-caliber noir and chamber jazz set in an extremely sparse and desolate soundscape of agonizing notes and frustrated melodies. The eight-minute The Ravens, consisting in four guitars dueting with Vandermark's reeds at a funereal pace, moved that concept into abstract space. The ten-minute Ship Supply was structured in three parts: Vendermark's agonizing trumpet melody, a lengthy low haunting drone, and a melancholy tide of O'Rourke's and Krassner's guitars. (Michael Krassner writes: "The low drone you're hearing is Jim O'Rourke playing an acoustic guitar through a guitar amp. He was basically controlling the feedback an acoustic guitar generally makes when positioned close to an amplifier. He was also detuning his guitar during the drone creating interesting beating pulses in the feedback. When one note is sustained and another note or string is slightly being de-tuned, you can hear the overtones pulsating or beating against eachother").
The ten-minute The Valley was also in three movements: a ghostly, disjointed piano-guitar duet, an almost swinging quartet of guitar, piano, violin and bass, and finally a hypnotic lullaby for three guitars and piano. The 13-minute At The Sea reentered rock music from the back door, with four dissonant guitars interlacing over steady drumming.
Elsewhere the music focused on images and sounds of nature. For The Glory of the Wind and the Water used the instruments to produce droning sounds that evoked the foggy landscape of the harbor and maybe the anxiety of the travelers. Telegraph Hill was Krassner's four-minute piano solo of sparse notes and sketchy melodies, sounding like Brian Eno on valium, against the sound of the wind.
The country-ish Captain's Bay Hood for solo guitar (O'Rourke), sounding like a defective Leo Kottke record, and Ebb's Folly (Will Oldham singing one of his alt-country tales backed by O'Rourke on guitar and electronics) were the only obvious tributes to Americana.
Throughout the album, the musicians did not play music but barely hinted at playing music. The instruments emitted notes, but hardly connected them. The descriptive and psychological program did not call for grandiose gestures, but for vivisecting the ordinary.
For The Last Place To Go (Atavistic, 1998) Krassner assembled a supergroup consisting of bassist Ryan Hembrey, singer Edith Frost, guitarist Charles Kim of the Pinetop Seven, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White of the Dirty Three, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm of the Terminal 4, guitarist Scott Tuma of the Souled American. Ken Vandermark of the Flying Luttenbachers, and even Will Oldham on harmonica. The album documents their live performances, accompanying the same documentary. Compared with the preceding soundtrack, though, it sounds warmer and more dynamic. It belongs more to jazz than to classical music. At the same time, it roams a different dimension. The sleepy, trance-y chords and tenuous plucking of Coastal Border, the otherworldly guitar caresses of Dust And Rain, the languid melodica drones of The Last Place To Go (wrapped in slowly revolving nebulae of violin and guitar notes) reach for the inner self and for harmony the same way psychedelic, Indian and new age music do.
Eventually, emotions creep out of these warping lattices. The sense of dejection in Nobody is overwhelming, its reverbed and slightly out of tune strumming sinking deeper and deeper into the psyche while slowly revealing the ghostly shadow of a melody. Something tender and bright happens inside the half waltzing tempo of Fading Cold before the violin and the clarinet intone the melancholy wail of Two Ravens.
The tour de force of Far Gone/ Big Sky summarizes style, technique, praxis and mood while delivering a powerful blues of the catacombs.
The Pinetop Seven provide the foundation for the EP Niagara Falls (Atavistic, 1999). Krassner is still surrounded by improvisers such as David Grubbs and Jim Becker, and the soundtrack for the Alaska landscape is no less haunting (especially New York One).
Michael Krassner (Atavistic, 1999) is a solo album, and a surprisingly "normal" one. Krassner plays the role of the singer songwriter of the 1970s (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Jim Croce). In general, the ensemble tracks fare better than the solo ones, the rocking ones (Water Lets Life In, Glass In Garden) displaying a flowing and elegant eloquence, the country-infected ones (To Lose Is To Gain) injecting some contempt for life. Krassner is not a phenomenal singer and focusing on his singing obviously detracts from his compositional skills. The instrumental Dawn (a military march with funereal bagpipes and drunken horns) easily steals the show.
The year 2000 brings a new Michael Krassner project: the Lofty Pillars. When We Were Lost (Truckstop, 2000) features Ryan Hembrey, Glenn Kotche, Stephen Dorocke, Gerald Dowd, and Fred Lonberg-Holm. The style is not all too different from Krassner's solo album, but the arrangement makes a big difference. Here, mournful ballads such as Lost and I Have Become You have more substance. Best is the Bob Dylan-ian elegy of Anna Lee. Of course, this is still a collection of "songs", that hardly hints at what will become of the Lofty Pillars.
Boxhead Ensemble's all-instrumental Two Brothers (Truckstop, 2001) features a line-up of Krassner, bassist Ryan Hembrey, violinist Jessica Billey, drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Scott Tuma (of Souled American), and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. This is virtually a chamber ensemble that improvises jams of jazzy, smoky, sleepy slo-core.
The 11-minute From This Point Onward relishes in the contrast of tones, each instrument engaging in a game of "deep listening" and ecstatic "call and response". The solemn, dejected pace recalls the Dirty Three as well as the Cowboy Junkies. This kind of rock "adagio" peaks with the 10-minute Requiem, anchored to a heartbreaking melody that is stretched and deformed but maintains its romantic emphasis. The classical appeal of Come Again No More is not so much in the strings that rise and fall like waves but in the stately soundtrack that they create.
The 18-minute Two Brothers basically deconstructs traditional folk music without losing the mournful epos. The theme is slowly lost in a slow-motion symphony of languid phrases, like in Japanese funeral music, and then the instruments engage in hysterical picking and counter-picking.
The lengthier tracks are separated by brief intermezzos (Still, When Johnny Comes Marching On, The Half Light, the ghostly and noisy Epilogue) that are as intriguing if not more.
The music on this album is both abstract and traditional, both a sonic puzzle and a song in disguise. There is both brain and heart, life and art, sense and purpose, in these profound and almost holy meditations.
Caught in a time warp, the Lofty Pillars' Amsterdam (Truckstop, 2001) mirrors the experience of the Penguin Cafè Orchestra, attempting a fusion of old-fashioned sounds and modern aesthetic values while offering performances worthy of classical music. Krassner sings in a plaintive tone that is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. Will Hendricks on piano, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Jen Paulsen on viola, Jessica Billey on violin, Kyle Bruckman on english horn, and many others make up an impressive chamber ensemble. Amsterdam manages to find a common ground between classical lied, Brecht-ian cabaret, Broadway showtune, lounge music and exotica, and Krassner's tale soars with a magic melancholy that bridges fairy tales and obituaries. Mothers Arms is a superb aria that unravels at a "stoned" pace, as if in trance, with the cargo of sorrow of a spiritual (imagine Simon & Garfunkel's Sound Of Silence at one-tenth of the speed).
Despite the mesmerizing arrangements and the clockwork execution, this is ultimately the work of a singer songwriter, and Krassner cannot completely hide the family tree he comes from. Desire-period Dylan is an influence on the soulful litany of Sons Of Solemn Men, and the 7-minute ode Field Of Honor is the best Blonde On Blonde track that Dylan never wrote. Down The River has the metaphysical pace of the Band's gospel/country hymns.
The tender and gloomy Guest Of Dishonour raises the same spectres of the first Cohen album. And Longing almost mimicks Bird On A wire.
On the other hand, Three Men showcases the epic fluency of a Nick Cave.
Overall, this is a rarity: an album that is both truly enjoyable and highly creative.
Krassner is one of the most important songwriters of the new century.
Boxhead Ensemble's Quartets (Atavistic, 2003), featuring Michael Krassner, Jessica Billey (violin), Michael Colligan (horns), Ryan Hembrey (bass), Glenn Kotche (drums), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Scott Tuma (guitar), is an ethereal work that rediscovers Krassner's lyrical soul. The floating aria of One, broadcast from cello to violin to guitar and back, sets the transcendent tone of the quartets. Two has the languid soulfulness of a new-age adaptation of zen music The more lively and articulate Three sounds like the deconstruction of a folk tune. Four is, instead, a flow of ghostly instrumental noises, halfway between the soundtrack of a psychedelic "trip" and a dissonant chamber concerto, a delicate ballet of warm and icy tones, of percussive and droning sounds, a soundscape of blurred memories roamed by distant echoes. Five is more of the same, except that the violin carries a real melody, and the loose slow-motion accompaniment works as a counterpoint, although it is the counterpoint that soon becomes the real protagonist. Six alternates between a swinging, jazzier mood and the gentle lulling of a neoclassical adagio. This is the purest expression of the Boxhead Ensemble's soundscape-oriented aesthetics.
Boxhead Ensemble's Nocturnes (Atavistic, 2006) featured Michael Krassner (guitar and keyboards), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, harmonica), Frank Rosaly (percussion) and Jacob Kolar (prepared piano). The eight nocturnes probably represent the peak of Krassner's zen-like meditative art. 1 achieves its trancey and almost aquatic feeling by juxtaposing slowly undulating cello against the pointillistic tinkling of the piano and loud crashing cymbals.
The quartet explores a broad range of atmospheres and styles, from the dissonant, psychedelic 8 to the heroic and almost martial 2.
The mood turns to openly elegiac in 5, virtually a duet between cello and guitar, reminiscent of Japanese koto music. 7 rediscovers the melodic and rhythmic dimensions, with a guitar's insistent strumming leading the lively and languid dance of cello, guitar and piano.
The proceedings close with the stately, majestic, nine-minute 10, a cello, guitar and organ hymn exuding metaphysical yearning and fear.
Dutch Harbor: Where The Sea Breaks Its Back Video
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