Tag Archives: Michael Masley

November 1998 – album reviews – Cloud Chamber’s ‘Dark Matter’ (“unsettling beauty with an element of wild and joyous fear”)

20 Nov
Cloud Chamber: 'Dark Matter'

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’

A cloud chamber is a device for measuring the existence of the intangible. Physicists use them – mapping out the paths that subatomic particles trace through a vapour, studying nuclear reactions and inferring the presence of other particles. There’s something about that last bit I particularly like: inferring the existence of something. Something you can only detect, or believe in, by seeing how it affects something else.

Cloud Chamber (with the capitals) is an improvising group allowing the convergence of several other exotic particles – these being guitarist Barry Cleveland, space-age bass guitarist Michael Manring, cellist Dan Reiter, percussionist Joe Venegoni and Michael Masley, who coaxes sounds out of a more esoteric set of instruments (panpipes, gobek, gobeon and the cymbalom dulcimer). Having come together as part of the Lodge improv evenings in Oakland, California following stints with employers as diverse as Michael Hedges, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, Ry Cooder and Garbage (plus exploits in journalism and dance theater), Cloud Chamber’s collective past suggests that what they’re likely to condense together will be suckling blissfully on an inspiration of mind and music, devoid of barriers.

More accurately, outside of barriers. When listening to improvised music you’re all too often shoved back on your arse by the force of several musicians protesting their individuality as forcefully as possible, and playing off each other with all the subtlety of dodgem cars. Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, have nothing to do with ego. The fivesome’s music emerges like the interplay of ocean currents; a process of continual organic movement to which the musicians respond as if they’re no more than implements of a guiding force.

And that’s how it needs to be – the compound music that Cloud Chamber produce is as precarious and demanding as improv demands, but to release the life in that music it’s necessary for the musicians to let it play through them. Manring (a driving and devastatingly gifted bassist, as his solo records and work with Sadhappy testifies) keeps any hero-glitter under a bushel of humility here. He takes a step back, becoming just one of many element in the condensate: no more dominant then Reiter’s troubled, graceful cello or Venegoni’s poised rattlebag. Cleveland lurks in the background with his chameleonic guitar (playing a skeletal pattern of notes, a swarm of bees, a steel-shack sound, or an unknown language). Masley strokes and strikes gorgeously glassy shard-notes out of his cymbalom with his bowhammers and thumb-picks.

Patterns and presences take shape out of nothingness, drift around on the edge of perception, then suddenly and deeply solidify, impressing themselves on you as if they’ve been there for years. Half-familiar fragments of music (bits of Eastern European string quartet, Chinese and Asian music, a riff from King Crimson’s The Talking Drum) reveal themselves with an enigmatic smile while they’re well on the way to becoming something new.

This is also very beautiful music: though it’s a strung-out, unsettling beauty with an element of wild, joyous fear. The exquisite Blue Mass manifests itself like light twisting through a stained-glass prism, anchored on Reiter’s perplexing, precariously emotional cello calls above which the group fashion a soft, high night-sky of singing steel sounds. Radiant Curves is all looping contrails.

On Solar Nexus, singing bass guitar and cello interweave as Masley plucks and bows his cymbalom overhead: Cleveland’s guitar flies in out of left-field over popping, sliding, shadowy bass shapes, and everything ends in glittering, mirror-surfaced screams. As a listener, you become increasingly spooked and enchanted at the presences these sounds suggest. It feels like being stalked by the Easter Island statues in a swirling fog; or like hearing the sudden ring of an unknown voice in the haunted wind that cuts through high-tension wires overhead.

This disquietude doesn’t come from conflict. These musicians don’t battle each other. The thoughtful interview they provide in the booklet, and the watchful grace they exhibit in their interaction, amply proves the opposite. But something in the music that comes out of their alliance seems to suggest a rapt, fearful awe at the size and diversity of the cosmos; and that’s not just in the astronomer’s titles which the pieces sport.

Some music changes the way you see the world, and this is a full hour’s helping. Not so much a Big Music as a small music, something retreating into the details and filaments of unconfirmed suspicions. This could be in the rhythmic imperative of the baleful four-note Pink Floyd-ian riff in The Call, worried at by the rat-scurrying strings, space-gypsy fiddling and Manring’s anxious Jaco-in-retreat fingerwork. Or it could be in the cat’s-cradle of scrapes and rockets on cello, mingling with cymbalom mantras, on Full of Stars. Here, a tangle of miscellaneous alien squawks is surrounded by collapsing glassy percussion, fractured-tree bass noises and Cleveland’s guitar-talk, finally washing up on the shores of Chinese classical music.

The most obvious Cloud Chamber ever get is on the sketchy world-funk of Dithyramb. This is like an exploded version of the fake ethnography crafted by Byrne and Eno on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, or by Rain Tree Crow, and passes into a high, stretched-out passage of cello and bass sustain. Travelling alongside, Cleveland’s mounting guitar journeys from sketching out cirrus cloud to lovely Vini Reilly-esque pointwork. But this is a rare moment of innocence and cheer. Much more characteristic is the air-on-a-G-string improv that bedrocks Ursa Minor, setting up tensions between pluck and sustain, between the percussive cello and phased, rapping bass; between the ominous restlessness of free open passages and the querulous, demanding blue notes of the cello solo.

The final (and untitled) experiment leaves no tone resolved – winding cello, seagull distortions and an irregular, antsy wash of noise. You’re left feeling that Cloud Chamber have dismantled the scenery between us and the infinite, leaving us losing track of time, of solidity. Falling through the world. Suddenly turning around to find the whole colossal starry wonder of the universe at your back, and thrilling with a terrible flinch of delight.
Somehow Cloud Chamber are picking up on something that most of us miss: revealing something unseen by reacting to it. Hearing ‘Dark Matter’, you feel as if you’ve been allowed to watch the ambiguous wonder of something changing, and changing decisively – a presence inferred – and that you’ve been allowed to be part of it.

Science, or magic? Doesn’t matter. Live within it.

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’
Supersaturated Records, SUPERSATURATED 001
CD/download album
Released: 11th November 1998

Get it from:
CD Baby or iTunes.

Cloud Chamber (Barry Cleveland) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

October 1998 – album reviews – Michael Manring’s ‘The Book of Flame’ (“to get on the good foot while booting great clusters of noise about with the other”)

15 Oct

Michael Manring: 'The Book of Flame'

Michael Manring: ‘The Book of Flame’

If you’re already at the top of the tree, technique-wise – as Michael Manring is – you risk losing yourself in the skill, reheating old ideas with the energy you should be using to take yourself somewhere new. Thankfully, Manring’s smarter than that.

The meticulous, mellifluous bass guitarist who flowed his way through graceful jazz/New Age composites a decade ago has evolved into a much broader musician. His central playing style (a clean blend of Jaco Pastorius’ near-vocal virtuosity and the late Michael Hedges’ percussive contrapuntal bounce) remains intact, as do his harmonically dense tapping skills and fondness for stretching things out with the EBow sustainer. But having evolved a wider arsenal of bass noises – giant distorted trunks of feedback, fretboard noise, infinite-sustain drones, occasional On-U-Sound-a-like dub effects – he’s put them to compositional use, pushing out the envelope that way.

‘The Book of Flame’ continues the process begun on 1994’s ‘Thonk’: despite its good points, essentially a reaction record jumping vigorously into noisy heavy-metal fusion to ensure Manring wasn’t tagged with the “dextrous-wimp” label. Subsequent band work – dystopian prog-funk with Sadhappy, jazz-metal with Attention Deficit, more spacious experimental improv with Cloud Chamber – has seen Manring developing the side of his playing that looks towards “why” rather than “how”.

Though ‘The Book of Flame’ uses familiar colleagues (Michael Masley; Tim Alexander; Oregon reedsman Paul McCandless) as well as a few unfamiliar ones, it’s emphatically a solo album, with two-thirds of the tracks exclusively Manring-performed. And it’s his timeliest album to date, the one best attuned to its contemporary contexts. Although he hasn’t abandoned playing for computers and pure beat-science, Manring has discovered samplers, dance methodology and loop-culture with a vengeance, and battened onto them ravenously.


 
Having said that, there are enough real-time bass solos to satisfy technique-junkies: as usual with Manring, extending the instrument’s parameters. The Fire Sermon – executed on Manring’s ten-string bass, each string individually tuned – sounds like a squad of Terminators tap-dancing down a Busby Berkeley stairway, red eyes twinkling, chromium top hats waggling aloft. La Sagrada Familia hangs slippery fretless shapes in tuneful, trapeze-act harmonics patterns; and blurs from sustained notes to clusters of aggressive tapping (similar to Red Right Returning from 1992’s ‘Drastic Measures’). And there’s an echo of Stanley Clarke’s pluck’n’pop on No Wontons for Elvis, mingling athletic bluesiness with impossible tangles of contrapuntal squeaks.

Best of all is The Book of Living and Dying, a beautiful memorial and tribute to the late Hedges in the shape of a mournful lilting tune which shoots off to Hedges’ aspirant, meteor-popping celestial heights but then pulls itself back with a lump in its throat. But these are pretty much a sideline to the real business of ‘The Book of Flame’, which is to get on the good foot while booting great clusters of noise about with the other.


 
While there’s a lot of sonic experimentation on hand, this is also Manring’s most danceable record yet, with a set of busy tunes that shake their booties over cheeky, compressed, Prince-flavoured funk grooves with that tight, offhanded boom-blat rhythm. Adult Content/Brief Nudity has that, when it’s not breaking step into narcotic stumble-shuffling trip-hop ambience. Manring’s gang of basses converse with each other and McCandless’s bass clarinet, which explores and comments like Johnny Hodges taking the air in Paisley Park. Theseus in the Rains never entirely loses its hand-clappy purple groove-chat, even when Manring brings in skirling EBowed whines, percussive string bangs like abused filing-cabinets, and an assemblage of scrapes, pops and whines like an ailing flying saucer.


 
The approach goes furthest on Your Ad Here, which sets out like Adhan from ‘Thonk’ (high and low EBow drones like pipes and ney-flutes), but soon develops the legs of a tinny hip-hop beat. Manring exchanges singing Prince-y riffettes (descending from high plucked bass) and sharp, contrasting beat-science breakdowns – earthquake-wobbles, psychedelic space-echoes, drum shadows and computer noise. Closer to Tackhead than to Stu Hamm, anyhow, and with a similar dystopian flavour to its irresistible dance impulses.


 
‘The Book of Flame’ also sees Manring’s compositional and arranging diversity at its peak. Most misleading track award goes to The Adamski Photographs, both straight and twisted. Dave Tweedie’s violent heavy-Cobham drumming and the belligerent Allan Holdsworth-ish choruses could’ve tied it down to mainstream fusion, but Manring’s bass attacks (sputtering, clattering, playing a solo like someone molding tarmac) and the jarring groove (centred on Barry Gurley’s lurching, Thelonious Monk piano) ensure otherwise. In contrast, Ephemeris is a clean, almost inhumanly perfect two-minute phase of cyclical process music. A duo of basses playing in rolling, cascading minimalist harmony: each moving in and out, in-step, in a build-and-fade composition like a jazzed-up take on Philip Glass.



 
Booming swells of sustained cosmos-bass open The Book of Lies: an undulating atmospheric weave of drillbit melodies, tight clusters of clipped Jaco harmonics and thrumming prayer-like vocal groans before Alexander’s thunderous upfront drumming drags in Manring’s distorted heavy-metal lead bass, spluttering into all kinds of squealing feedback. And eventually it falls to Dromedary to bridge all the previous directions together: a framework of heavy funk and kitchen-sink-contents percussion regularly kicked in by distorted noisecore riffs and outer-space sample weirdness, around which Manring darts bubbling, talkative solo lines.


 
Accessible, yet challenging – and far too open-ended/minded to settle into the role of self-conscious masterpiece – ‘The Book of Flame’ is the best evidence yet of Michael Manring’s importance. Juggling high art and down-to-earth fun, he’s evolved from a rarified treasure into a broader pleasure, and seems set on the road to continue that way for a long time.

Michael Manring: ‘The Book of Flame’
Alchemy Records Ltd., ALCD 1015 (607387101520)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained from large online dealers or second-hand.
Michael Manring online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

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