Tom Surgal and Lin Culbertson, a.k.a. White Out, have explored the fringes of free-form music since forming in New York City’s meat packing district back in 1995. Surgal and Culbertson take a “kitchen sink” approach to making music: their arsenal of sonic tools includes drums, analog synthesizers, electric autoharp, flute, metal scraps, wordless vocals, an array of other instruments, and quite possibly, an actual kitchen sink. A double-CD consisting of two extended tracks, Senso documents a live recording from a December 18, 2004 performance at the now-defunct Tonic club in NYC. This time out, they bring in returning contributor Jim O’Rourke and new addition Thurston Moore. White Out’s fourth release Senso roams the prickly, fractured landscapes of undiscovered planets in galaxies farther away than anyone could possibly imagine. In other words: it’s out there, man.
White Out has made collaboration with other musicians a part of their working practice since 1995’s Red Shift, a collaboration with David Nuss of the No Neck Blues Band. Other collaborators on previous projects included Nels Cline, Mike Watt, and William Winant. The duo’s most recent release, China is Near included both Winant and O’Rourke and they’ve again chosen to employ two other musicians for Senso. The album contains two extended tracks stretching nearly an hour and a half: “Fear of Fear (of Fear)” and “The Eyes the Mouth”.
Moore’s recognizable guitar squall is all over this release, but as he’s shown many times in the past with Sonic Youth, he knows when to back off and let others dominate the conversation. He remains a remarkably restrained performer even if he’s better known for face-melting feedback manipulation and general instigation of auditory terror. Moore’s former band mate O’Rourke seems keen to dash and dart around the perimeter, making the music sound whole. It seems that his skills as producer and editor of sound bleed into his performance as an instrumentalist.
The music on Senso sounds alternately meditative, discomforting, spaced-out, harrowing, and about a thousand shades of color in between. Surgal ably guides the action from behind his kit, continually giving ever-so-malleable shape to the proceedings. The drummer counts the great Elvin Jones among his musical influences and indeed there are echoes of A Love Supreme throughout Surgal’s polyrhythms. By design, however, the music careens off every rhythmic edge and into the abyss.
According to Moore’s press release for Senso (yes, he writes press releases, too), the band and their fellow collaborators “set the controls for the heart of the universe,” the sun being understandably too close. Indeed, during many times in the span of this double-album I found myself detaching from my body and exploring the outer limits of the cosmos (or something like that). To these ears, “The Eyes the Mouth” simulated floating in a rusted-out, abandoned satellite from the 1950s: it slowly orbits in the atmosphere surrounded by junk, space dust, and such. Then, there’s a violent collision between the satellite and a particularly large piece of space junk. Much scraping and stripping of metal follow. Finally, the millions of tiny pieces drift back apart, gently revolve and expand out into the universe.
Unfortunately, there’s no air in space and consequently no music either. If such an occurrence was capable of happening within the Earth’s atmosphere and within earshot of an avant-garde audience somewhere in Manhattan, then Senso just might sound like it. Climb aboard, man.