Mike Weis: Don’t Know, Just Walk

[17 July 2014]

By Alex Franquelli

On Mortality and Beauty

Whatever happened to Mike Weis, it happened for no reason. There are no lessons to be learned from a battle with cancer. There is absolutely nothing a portion of body tissue gone crazy can teach us, apart from announcing its own location and existence. Mike Weis is a musician, and if you’ve ever ventured anywhere near good American experimentalism you know him already and, chances are, you love what he does. Chicago-based trio Zelienople has been around for more than a decade, spawning little underground gems like His/Hers and Give it up in the process. Things got even more interesting when Weis teamed up with metal yoga guru and four and six-string genius André Foisy (of Locrian fame) and Neil Jendon to form Kwaidan, whose debut album, Make All the Hell of Dark Metal Bright, was nothing short of fantastic.

Despite this, Mike Weis felt he had to expand the landscape we knew he naturally inhabited, so he started conceiving his new creature as soon as he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He taught it a lesson. As Weis explains in the press release that came with the CD, the title “references a method of meditation used in the Korean Zen tradition of Buddhism for clearing the mind—removing all obstructions to get a clear view of the world. Through experience, I’ve come to interpret this as proceeding without mental baggage, without dogma; basically, getting my self out of the way of myself so I can experience the rest of the world with wide openness.” And, boy, it worked.

Don’t Know, Just Walk was recorded at SOMA Studios, Chicago by Norman Conquest, and it is probably best explained as an ambient album focused on percussions, but with little percussive sounds. Take a track like “But the Sound Keeps Coming”, for instance. Before the first, clear hint of some sort of drumming kicks in, we find ourselves lost in a haze populated with birds of all species. Nuthatches, tufted titmice, woodpeckers and even frogs and crickets. If Mike Weis wanted to write a piece of work on the transience of life, he has managed to do so by focusing his inspiration on the less grim aspects of its subtraction, as one could naturally expect an avant-garde musician at ease with the darkest aspects to do. This is the closest one could get to Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux without explicitly referencing it. This is a search for the purest of sounds, for an archetype of music, be it noise or melody, or even the most supreme form of sound:  silence.

Space (therefore, time) is dilated and stretched to form otherworldly tones and inflections, with life—the fauna, the tribal percussions and their combination—as its centre of gravity. Give a microphone to a musician and he will record the mortality that surrounds him. Give it to a musician with fear of mortality and he or she will describe what life is all about. Weis was in pain, but the final result is a contemporary ode to joy and an album with virtually no overdubs and recorded in one take. The moktak, the bass drum and the janggu allowed for the development of complex rhythm patterns revolving around a feeble prepared guitar, as well as a short-wave radio (“The Temple Bell Stops”), and Conquest’s ARP 2600 analogue synth on “Out of the Flowers”. This is it.

Don’t Know, Just Walk is an album about beauty. One could say that, yes, the influence of artists like Ekin Fil, Jodi Cave, Cyclobe, Mika Vainio and Joachim Nordwall is tangible, but I wouldn’t be surprised to know that Mike Weis has never heard of them. Their paths must have crossed at some point simply because they were all going in the same direction, but nobody paid attention to the others, as they were all looking for purity:  the answer to diverse and vaguely silent questions they all had.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/183120-mike-weis-dont-know-just-walk/