What does the term ‘experimental music’ mean? Forty years after Jon Hassell, sixty years after John Cage and Stockhausen, the term, like ‘indie’, is only a shell of its former, dangerous, meaning.

We lend half an ear without particularly ‘listening’ to its strange bleeps and glassy lunarscapes on video games, behind the action of blockbuster movies and – I could be wrong – I may have even heard some Cluster wafting across Aisle 5 at Coles last Thursday.

If the cultural blizzard/shitstorm of the Twentieth Century taught us anything, it is Music is Music. Sure, many cling to Genre as if it is a raft in a howling sea – Blues for example. But beyond those museum pieces, new music continues to be made. In one sense, anything that looks forward is experimental music.

forenzics1

Sydney group Forenzics is a four piece improvising collective who make music that is full of heart and beauty – contradicting the charge that experimental music is cold, cerebral and can only be appreciated on a mathematical level. The fact that it is improvised puts it theoretically in the jazz camp, and the four – founding guitarists Matthew Syres and Dirk Kruithof, drummer John Wilton and trumpeter Joe Cummins – play telepathically together like a great be-bop band or, more accurately, like a smoking’ free jazz combo. They listen to and feed off each other, growing the music in intensity and trajectory as they go. But that is as close to jazz as it gets.

Their fourth album together is Malign. It is completely improvised in the studio, with no overdubs, edits or preconceptions. The mission statement of our intrepid auranauts is to “play what you feel without limits and boundaries, only that (the music) must be created there and then with no restrictions on genre, texture, format or structure”.

It could be a bloody mess. But of course it is not – Malign is beautiful.forenzics2

The influence of 70s ‘ambient’ (another scoured-out word) trumpet visionary, Jon Hassell is evident from opener ‘a dusk service/sun checks’. Behind Cummins’ darkly glowing trumpet the guitars roll and pitch. In fact, across Malign the guitars rarely sound like guitars; they are used as sound generators to give the effects something to chew on and spit out as drones, luminous shafts of sound or robotic breathing. The occasional chord or arpeggio breaks the alien surface now and again but it is mainly beautifully controlled textures that the two focus on.

Texture also is the approach of drummer John Wilton. Even though there is the occasional muffled African heartbeat – such is on the Afro-Hassell ‘you’re entitled’ – Wilton brilliantly uses his percussives to scratch, dent and mottle the smooth surface of the guitars. It is a hard call for a drummer to take away the dimension of pulse-rhythm from his playing – very few could do it this well.

The influence of Miles Davis‘ earth-shaking Bitches Brew also stretches across Forenzics’ music. Cummins’ trumpet is the humanising element that gives Malign much of its surprising accessibility. Never FXed into unrecognisability, his pure tone is harmonised on ‘song games’, heavily reverbed on ‘stone cold crazies’ and echoed-up on ‘cubists’ yet remains a bright yet subtle acoustic voice above the strangescapes beneath.

Cummins’ most affecting improvisation is the entirely unadorned elegy he plays over ‘acid nekk’. Beneath him, a distorted drone of dying machines blackens the earth. Electronic twitches and rattles and hums are the death throes of an electronic  junk pile. The slow and sombre trumpet line over this machine graveyard somehow sums up something about the way we live – something indefinable. Experimental music is not supposed to affect one this deeply.

But it does. In fact all of Malign does. Yes, like all good modern art it asks to be listened to on its own terms. Yet it does not push away but creates a place for the listener to go and to explore as it happens. Unlike too much ‘experimental’ music, it includes; it does not exclude.

Published March 2015 on australianjazz.net and theorangepress.net

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