Aidan Baker & Karen Willems: Nonland (Gizeh Records, 2017)
If I could purchase and own every release Aidan Baker put out, I most certainly would. He consistently produces beautiful and surprising music, exploring the corners of far-reaching genres, combining known genres, and making so much new and refreshing art. Karen Willems is a Belgium drummer who has a long history of work in bands and collaborations. Her incredibly inventive and deft utilization of percussion is well known and the accolades well deserved. Nonland is the second collaboration between these avant-garde music veterans and it is a tantalizing set of tracks that explore the use of Willem’s percussion alongside Baker’s ever present creative variations on melodies, sounds, and textures. The album comes out of a single session that took place on June 18, 2016. The two had only played live together on one occasion, so the improvisational nature of the recording is brilliantly intuitive and the results just beautiful.
Nonland begins with “Like a Soft Rain Coming”. It is introduced with a bright, syncopated guitar loop that ends up swirling throughout the length of the track. Willems patiently inserts percussion into Baker‘s stream of varied guitar accents. She paints a sparse landscape with varied percussion pieces such as toms and high-hat. As the piece progresses, Baker adds little turns of phrase on the guitar while Willems adds more percussion sounds. The build is slow and careful, producing an expectation in the listener as it unfolds. Baker’s tonal choices create an inviting atmosphere while Willems never overwhelms him. It’s a brilliant marriage of these two artists’specialties. “Meeting in the Dark” has a more ominous tone to it as Baker’s guitar hums a low, minor sounding melody. Williems adds chilling textures with what sounds like a brush on snare, varying cymbal and high-hat shimmers, and an occasional tom. This is indeed a dark and tense track but it is so in a very stunning way. Baker’s guitar work here, as the track progresses, gets very abstract and droney, peering amid the various percussion choices provided by Willems.
“In My Head It is Kind of an Escape” returns to a guitar loop not unlike the one in “Like a Soft Rain Coming”. However, it is tonally different and Willems adds a more chaotic and almost spontaneous feel to the piece with percussion lines constantly thrown into variations. Her work almost gives the piece a jazz feel. Baker, here, is more reticent and holds back while Willems fills in the gaps in his sparse, beautifully constructed drones. The variety of drone tones, however, begin to layer and build along the way, eventually adding to Willems controlled chaos. It also seems a rather spectacular fuzzed out bass is added to this track with wonderful effect. “Intro (Digging)” begins with sparse drums, bare and present. Deep bass is accented with various other percussion tones and textures. Baker finds moments in the spaces to introduce brief guitar tones, textures, and modular melodies. This all fills out as the percussion takes form and Baker spins some glorious loops to play over. It’s a bright affair that threatens to almost find a groove with consistency but never actually moved into the spaces where hooks and consistent melodies can be found. It’s a synergistic piece that really plays with the tension of almost gluing a more traditional piece together but leaves the listener in that “almost” space as guitars warble, create drones, and move in time but not quite the time Willems invites.
“Digging Through Time” flows right out of “Intro (digging)”, hence the name of the track. Here, Baker’s guitar work finds its place among Willems’ infectious, off-kilter beat. They finally meet up and head into a world of repeating drones and short, competing melodic lines. There is this almost flute-like line in the midst of the hypnotic repeated elements that really break up the composition and give it a gorgeous depth. “Digging Through Time” eventually fades into a drone that melds with the finale, “Nonland”. This titular piece has a fuller drone right from the start with the same sort of sparse and careful percussion one hears at the beginning of the album. This is probably the most drone-like track on the album, with flowing soundscapes and percussion used as a texture and accentual instrument throughout. It’s a beautiful conclusion to a wonderfully spontaneous and improvised journey.
Nonland is a demonstration of Aidan Baker and Karen Willems’ musical prowess. It is an improvised set of songs that draw you in and set off your imagination. Given that they have only played together live once before, the chemistry evident throughout Nonland is quite remarkable. They move from complex moments to simple juxtapositions with ease, letting each other shine at various places and never overtaking the other. On Nonland, a brilliant musical conversation is had between a skillful percussionist and a seasoned avant garde guitarist. Pick up a copy from Gizeh Records!
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