With improvisational music, the emphasis on free-form exploration often leads artists into unknown territories, resulting in music that, while interesting, can often feel shapeless and meandering. However, for a trio like the Unsemble, made up of the Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison, Einsturzende Neubaten's Alexander Hacke, and Silver Jew's Brian Kotzur, musical experimentation takes on a whole other feeling. While the Unsemble might have sonic exploration in their hearts, their sense of structure lives in their bones, making their self-titled debut, which gives listeners a front-row seat for a wrestling match between form and freedom.
This self-titled record from the Unsemble is the first offering from the instrumental trio comprising Duane Denison (Tomahawk/The Jesus Lizard), Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubaten) and Brian Kotzur (Silver Jews). Denison's unmistakable guitar work frames the project, with his twangy tones ringing reminiscent of his moodier work with Tomahawk.The record is a mix of the group's composed and improvised pieces, and the sequencing suggests a kind of tension between the two. With their compositions, the Unsemble sound as though they're scoring a film not yet made, but they never settle into those cinematic moments for long.
It’s easy imagining that a collaboration between members of Einstürzende Neubauten and the Jesus Lizard might fall somewhere on the harrowing end of the spectrum. Each of those outfits, in its own way, made a name for itself by pulverizing the syntax of rock—Neubauten using brain and sinew, the Lizard using gonad and intestine—and constructing something singularly unsettling in its place. But The Unsemble, the eponymous debut album by a trio comprising Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten and Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard (along with past Silver Jews drummer Brian Kotzur), is not the logical output of such an equation.
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.
Bassist/synth op Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten), guitarist/keyboardist Duane Denison (the Jesus Lizard) and drummer Brian Kotzur (Silver Jews) are the Unsemble, whose eponymous instrumental debut sounds nothing like their previous career-defining outfits. It’s an arc of moods and musicianship, ranging from dynamic jamming (a series of five numbered “Improvs”), inspired cinematic tension (“Act 3,” “Shadows”) and moments of textured finesse (“Circles,” “Waves”). Despite the players’ résumés, there aren’t many moments of speaker-blowing abandon, and the proceedings are occasionally reminiscent of those antiseptic prog-rock records made when veteran rock virtuosos are summoned by the wave of a benevolent checkbook (“Cyclone”).
I’ll say one thing for The Unsemble: they have gone and achieved what I thought was verging on the impossible – making an improvised album that is deathly, tragically dull. This lot came with excellent chops as well; Duane Denison plays guitar and keys with Mike Patton’s rather excellent experimental mob Tomahawk, then we have Alexander Hacke from bloody Einsturzende Neubaten for god’s sake on bass and errr Brian Kotzur who’s played drums for those noted improv kings Silver Jews. You’d think that even if the improvised pieces didn’t come off (and they really don’t, blimey they don’t) the, and I quote from Ipecac’s site here, “carefully composed and arranged” pieces might have a touch of verve about them? Nope, nothing to see here.