[4 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s been eight years since Glenn Kotche’s last solo album, Mobile, and things are a lot different this time around. This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Kotche is the most surprising and ever-growing part of Wilco as their drummer, and he has made subtle and fascinating instrumental work as part of On Fillmore. Adventureland finds Kotche expanding his compositions and his musical palate into writing for strings and electronics alongside Kotche’s huge collection of percussion instruments.
The results are an album that is based almost entirely around two intertwined suites. “Anomaly” comes in seven parts and is performed with the Kronos Quartet. The piece was originally conceived and played live with the Quartet in 2007, but here the elements shift slightly. “Mvt. 1” is an ambient imagining of the live performance, where string elements are translated into pulsing electronics. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition with “Mvt. 2”, a quartet piece that Kotche conceived only on his drumkit. The other instruments play in lock-step with Kotche’s percussion (and percussion added by the other players) and the sounds bloom into a warm and wide-open sound. Things shift again on “Mvt. 3” that combines the quartet-drums interplay with electronic elements and the combination is a bit more off-kilter, a bit darker than the other movements. It also works as a hinge into the spacious string work on “Mvt. 4” and the dissonant chimes of “Mvt. 5”. The “Anomaly” suite closes the record with the playful rise and fall of “Mvt. 6” and the quiet coda of “Mvt. 7”. Despite not sharing a name with the album, these pieces do have a carnival-like feel, injected with flurries of energetic discovery and introspective searching. They are sounds cut loose in an alternate place, a place that seems both childlike in its wonder and mature in it sense of finding order in the chaos.
The other suite here, “Haunted”, is a shadowy counterweight to “Anomaly”. This composition is for two pianos and percussion and its spare instrumentation presents a lot more negative space. “The Haunted Dance” establishes the fragile, patient building of the composition, but that fragility doesn’t last. “The Haunted Hive” is a clashing piece of wandering percussion free of the melodic intricacies of “The Haunted Dance”. Later moments like “The Haunted Furnace” treat the piano as an instrument just as percussive as the drums. If “Anomaly” is about wonder and discovery, “Haunted” contrasts all that warmth with a chilling worry, with a musical underbelly.
Adventureland has these two cohesive suites, but it’s also an album of interruption. The album interlaces movements from “Anomaly” with ones from “Haunted”, so you’re often jostled from one composition to the other, which keeps you from getting your footing. This ordering of the program makes the clashing elements work. It’s even more jarring because “Haunted” runs mostly backward, from “Mvt. 5” down, but then throws “Mvt. 1” in between the fourth and third parts. Also thrown in here is “The Traveling Turtle”, a stand-alone piece written for the gamelan, an Indonesian percussion tool that comprises various sorts of instruments. It’s the most purely and plainly percussive movement here, one that sort of lays bare the intricate foundation for Adventureland and the nucleus of Kotche’s musical approach here. Adventureland is a dynamic record front to back, one carefully orchestrated but then deconstructed and re-ordered in compelling ways. It’s another surprise from Kotche, a player and composer who refuses to repeat himself.