Writing about ambient music in the liner notes of his album Music For Airports, Brian Eno, the godfather of the genre, said that “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”. That’s something that could be said of much of The Unsemble’s album, although on the face of it this is no ambient record; the credentials of the trio’s members are enough to make that clear.
The Unsemble consists of The Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison, Einstürzende Neubauten bassist Alexander Hacke and the drummer Brian Kotzur, perhaps best known for his work with Silver Jews. As such, one might expect an album that’s harsh and confrontational rather than something interesting yet ignorable.
And at times, that’s what The Unsemble delivers. There are occasional moments of downbeat post-punk such as Neon, and tight and frantic interludes such as Shadows. But for the most part, this wholly instrumental record is gently intriguing enough that the ambient label almost fits. Opening track Krishna, for example, is little more than a minute or so of build up.
However, there is an intensity to the album which perhaps stems from the fact that it was recorded in only two weeks. Although Kotzur might be the least known member of the group, it’s his contributions that are the most significant, with the drums and percussion guiding many of the pieces through their peaks and troughs. Hacke’s basslines are sometimes a little funky, as in Act 3, and at other times more tightly wound and driving. He’s also responsible for the electronic elements and production that add a sinister atmosphere to Waves. The guitars are in general understated: it’s only during Cyclone, towards the tail end of the album, that Denison brings in a lighter, more soaring guitar line.
Five of the 15 tracks are explicitly presented as improvised, with the straightforward titles of Improv 1, Improv 2, &C., and some of the other pieces give off more than a whiff of improvisation. Improvisation is a funny old area, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the standard of these pieces is variable. Improv 3 and Improv 4 do very little, but Improv 2 introduces a pervasive drone before Kotzur’s drumming turns it into something very powerful indeed. Improv 4 also builds into something truly exciting.
This might be an uneven album, but its main flaw is that the tracks are simply too short. Only three of the 15 are more than three minutes long, and while might be a good thing in a punk album, say, the conciseness of the tracks is often a problem here. Many of these pieces are slow-builders; sparseness and spaciousness are hallmarks of The Unsemble’s sound, and the trio handle those moods very well. But all too often the tracks are not given enough time in which to build – several of them could easily go on for twice as long, and they would surely continue to engage and develop.
But in their abbreviated states, some of the pieces are sadly rather forgettable; their capacity for being ignored is greater than their ability to be interesting. There are plenty of occasions when the reverse is true – when the tighter, more frantic tracks get into full flow they can be gripping. These sorts of songs suggest that the intention of The Unsemble was never to create ambient music, and for that reason it’s a shame that this is an album slightly prone to dwelling on its ambience. Still, this is a promising collaboration which Denison, Hacke and Kotue will hopefully choose to reprise and develop.