Passing Through the Wall
(Cuneiform Rune 367)
While it would have been particularly appropriate to begin the New Year with a write-up of a recording released in 2014, there’s actually still plenty of great 2013 music to catch up with. Greeting me upon my return to the office yesterday morning was a stack of goodies from the old year including a package from the always intriguing Cuneiform label. I was immediately struck by the cover of one of the discs therein, Passing Through the Wall, credited to a group called Zevious. Its repetitive sequences of diagonal lines in stark back and white, different but equally hypnotic patterns on both the front and back of the CD booklet cover as well as the tray card suggested that the music would be simultaneously primal and mind altering. And it indeed it is.
This trio of guitarist Mike Eber, cousin Jeff Eber on drums, and bassist Johnny DeBlase makes spare, taut music that is also chock full of dueling layers of angular counterpoint couched in polymeters. But despite its austerity and complexity, it’s surprisingly easy to listen to—perhaps an appropriate irony for a band whose name rhymes with devious! What might also be “zevious” is that the group began its performing career in jazz clubs as something of a straight-ahead trio, with DeBlase on upright bass. Then around five years ago they decided to go completely electric and even added effects pedals to the mix. Yet they’re still garnering rave reviews from the likes of All About Jazz which opined that the group now “leans more toward technical metal than jazz” but praised them for still “retain[ing] the skills of a jazz band.”
The opening track of Passing Through the Wall, “Attend to Your Configuration,” goes beyond a transition from jazz to fusion to rock to something that has a distinctly heavy metal feel to it, albeit without anything remotely resembling an attention-grabbing guitar solo. After about two and a half minutes, they slow down a tad and then simply stop playing. It sounds like these jazzers, unlike earlier generations of fusion-minded musicians, came to rock via punk. However, I was not fully prepared for what happens next—a six-minute track named “Was Solis.” It starts innocently enough, with a single guitar line moving in parallel motion with taps on a high-hat. The bass comes in, again mirroring every beat of the guitarist’s line, at first with a single note ostinato and then with a complimentary phrase. But then the guitar veers off into more syncopated terrain, actually not terribly far away from what a contemporary jazz guitar solo could sound like, but by a minute and half in, gnarly harmonies bathed in distortion take over. When individual voices again emerge they are much more menacing, with overtones screeching out against a throbbing beat. Then, the real surprise; the music gets extremely slow, with each individual long sustained note sounding more and more ominous. Although the pace finally picks up in its closing thirty seconds, the music has gone to a place from which it is not easy to return.
In a live performance of “Was Solis” from 2011, it comes across as slightly less dangerous, perhaps because they look so assured as they play through it, but you can still get the idea.
The remaining eight tracks on Passing Through the Wall navigate between these polarities. At first, “Pantocyclus” melds the angularity of Red-era King Crimson with the circular counterpoint of the reformed KC’s subsequent Discipline. But midway through it sounds a lot closer to Sunn O))); the music reaches a point of heightened dissonance and just stays there! “White Minus Red,” perhaps a nod to the aforementioned Crimson LP, is similarly relentless, alternating linear movement with big dissonant chords.
At the onset of “A Crime of Separate Action” a progression of two chords repeats over and over, but rather than establishing a tonality, it actually obfuscates it in a way that would have made Captain Beefheart proud. Two minutes in, however, the music transforms to something much murkier and trippier, which is somehow magical but hardly Magic Band, but it doesn’t stay there for more than 40 seconds, opting instead for another musical dead end. The music keeps morphing but it never resolves. “Entanglement” continues in this harmonically unstable terrain, with a single throbbing polytonal chord forming the basis of the melodies and harmonies. In “A Tiller in a Tempest,” the melodic instruments act as punctuation to insistent percussion riffs. The title track “Passing through the Wall” has something of a march-like feel to it, but it’s like a march off a cliff. But just when you might think the unremitting intensity will never let up, there’s a brief respite of relative calm before it starts up again. “This Could Be the End of the Line” is the shortest of all the disc’s offerings, just barely over two minutes, but it is by no means lighter fare. Insistent asymmetric ostinatos make it difficult to determine exactly where the downbeat it much of the time. By contrast, “Plying The Cold Trade,” is the longest, clocking it at slightly over eight minutes. It is also, by far, the slowest. From its mysterious, almost other-worldly opening salvo, it builds extremely gradually and mostly remains surprisingly low key given all the agitation of the nine previous tracks; it is further testimony to the remarkable range of this group.
There is precious little information on the disc or booklet besides the fact that Mike Eber composed all of the tracks except for “Was Solis,” “White Minus Red” and “Entanglement” which were composed by Johnny DeBlaze. But according to the press release that accompanied their disc, both composers have completely scored out all of the parts for their music—going still further afield from their jazz origins and ostensibly leaving little to chance. This is quite surprising, given how in the moment it all sounds. But what surprises me even more about Zevious is that I hadn’t known about them before listening to this album, yet the group hails from NYC, just played a gig in Brooklyn last month which I missed (damn it!) and this is their third album. Well, I’ll be making up for lost time by keeping this disc in rotation as well tracking down the rest of their discography.