It is almost worth buying this record simply to disprove the claim that, in this increasingly corporate age, individualised, experimental music is a thing of the past. That this album is available at all is in itself something to celebrate. Whether anyone will get to hear it is another matter altogether. Not because it is at all difficult or inaccessible—it is neither, it just doesn’t belong automatically in any one musical pigeon-hole.
For all the current talk about “envelope pushing” and the growth of much genuine genre-crossing, if an album can’t be inducted into one of the (admittedly myriad) contemporary marketing categories, it is likely to fall between the cracks and disappear without trace. Frankel’s excellent second solo outing will test both retailers and scribes as it defies (with evident relish) any easy appellation. All of the following will (and have been) appended to the respected percussionist’s work—new age, modern classical, world, ambient, chill-out, abstract, nu-jazz, avant-garde, and leftfield. There are varying degrees of appropriateness to each of those terms but none of them do justice to the full range of shapes and sound patterns created by the eight haunting compositions that make up the set.
Frankel is best known as a session drummer, one whose talents have been used by luminaries such as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. He also was part of the Tanto Tiempo recording, Bebel Gilberto’s influential neo-bossa gem. Some clues in that trio, aesthetically if not generically, as to what The Vibration of Sound is attempting. Reed and Anderson bring wit and intelligence to all their work, while Gilberto’s album was a successful attempt to match modern electronica with a more organic Brazilian sound. All three exude sophistication.
These factors are all present on this present project. Articulate and urbane, it has a surprisingly organic feel, despite its use of tape-loops and modern studio techniques. The music has a multi-ethnic air as well, but is no mere work of Western exoticism. And although it has no time for 4/4 beats (which will debar it from much lounge and deep listings, to which it could quite easily belong), it flows rhythmically and smoothly. Above all, for a percussion-based work it is reassuringly melodic, which says much for Frankel as a composer. As a player he is inventive and sensitive, this is not some excessive drum-fest but something much more subtle.
The instrumental line-up should appeal to anyone looking for something a little out of the ordinary. Frankel plays drums, bongos, tablas, bells, udu, riq, Egyptian tambourine, glass shakers, bones, rattlemallets, triangle, cuica, and anything else that when hit produces an interesting and different tone. That is why the record is never simply “ambient”—there are too many intriguing notes and noises coming at you. The skill, of course, is to organise these sounds and avoid mere cacophony. This Frankel does with such expert ease that the each number is soothing and relaxing, no matter how arcane and unorthodox its component parts.
Woody Jackson adds some well-placed guitar licks, Pablo Calogero is in masterful form on various woodwinds, Doug Wieselman plays clarinet and Joseph Hammer is responsible for the tape loops. Guest vocals are provided by 11 Zebra Finches (that is not a group, it is eleven real zebra finches) and one must finally mention Frankel’s own invention, by way of rubber bands stretched across a car hubcap, the wonderfully named Hubcapaphone. Bizarre and silly as all this might appear the results are generally effective and engaging.
So, try the mellow opener “Tabla People”, which eases you gently into the Frankel experience. This track features drone-box, tablas, and a tape-loop of some English upper-class voice (sounds like Vivian Stanshall, but hard to tell) and is as hard to classify as it is easy on the ear. A didgeridoo introduces the title track, which has a distinct Middle Eastern feel to it. Next comes one of the set’s highlights, “I Remember Gabor”, with the Hubcapaphone in good voice and an atmosphere evocative of jungles and temple devotional music. These develop into a very stirring, almost orchestral set of motifs with the combination of percussive sounds building to a controlled but forceful climax. Jazz modernist, Paul Motian was a big influence on Frankel and there is much about this and other tracks that would find a worthy home on labels like ECM, where vanguardists and new ageists such as Motian have explored not dissimilar themes over the past few years.
The postmodern, chamber-jazz that Frankel gives the odd nod to is close to some twentieth-century classical music. Traces of which are also to be found here, firstly on “New Sounds in the Afternoon” then even more pointedly on the outstanding “Red Tailed Hawk”, which showcases Calogero’s skills as flautist. Poised and precise, it would grace any Concert Hall. There is also an impressionistic, almost cinematic, drive to some of the tunes, especially “Message From Another Planet” and “Bellydancer”. Aspirant film directors should note Frankel’s name. The man has great soundtrack potential. Incidentally, the finches get their moment centre-stage on the aptly, if rather lamely, titled closing track “The Birdcage”.
You do have to share the group’s delight in mood and tonal embellishment to get the most out of this disc. You can’t dance to it and, mellow as it mostly is, it is a little too challenging to be just background music. The craftsmanship and the care with which differing techniques and equipment are used to make fresh, coherent and self-sufficient compositions is perhaps the music’s defining characteristic (and strength).
I think fans of the downtempo efforts provided by labels like Shadow Records will welcome Vibration’s general vibe, though it represents something rather better than simple, spliff-smoking accompaniment. Anyone with an interest in the more rarefied aspects of current, jazz-classical fusions will also feel quickly at home. Less cerebral souls need not worry either. Though thoughtful, Frankel is never pompous, and the music is warm and intimate. Indeed there is a very sensuous, tactile nature to the rhythms and phrases, as befits a work driven by hand-drums and the bewildering variety of percussive instruments so deftly employed herein.
Record shops may have difficulty in filing this one, but that is their problem not ours. Listening to Vibration of Sound, oddity that it might appear to be, is not hard at all. It is a pleasure and one that should not remain confined to the avant-garde fringes of pop and rock.