Electro-jazz can be riveting stuff. Sweden’s Koop and Norway’s Jaga Jazzist — to name but two artists working in that tenuously defined genre — both specialize in unique combinations of electronic techniques and jazz timbres. Germany’s Kammerflimmer Kollektief works in a similar vein but specializes in more ambient, formless landscapes. Their most recent release, Teufelskamin (“Devil’s Chimney”), continues to mine that vein, but it fails to build any significant momentum over the course of its 46 minutes.
Teufelskamin aligns itself more with the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble’s murky soundscapes than with either Koop or Jaga Jazzist’s supple grooves. The songs are certainly moody, and they’re certainly expansive, but few of them approach a hummable melody or “hook” in the conventional sense. Which isn’t a bad thing: Jazz is less shackled to catchiness than pop or rock music by design. Album opener “Coricidin Boogie” quickly establishes the formula the rest of the album will take: spacious electric guitar, synthesized textures, light drums, and ethereal female vocals.
“Teufelskamin Jam #1” probably gets the closest to free jazz’s seemingly anarchic sensibilities. Guitars scratch and explode, an Indian harmonium wheezes in the background, and dark synths whoosh and swirl. It’s one of the few pieces that feel genuinely improvised, and, with its unconventional instrumentation, feels the closest to a true melding of free jazz and electronica.
There are stabs at more conventional forms, though: “A Different Carmic Thermal” relies on Heike Aumiller’s softly cooed vocals for much of its melody, and to good effect. The song is eerily atmospheric, and unfolds slowly with orchestral swells and odd sound effects. Meanwhile, “Teufelskamin Jam #2” reaches closer to free-jazz with sputtering saxophone samples and abrupt start-and-stop dynamics, but it feels disjointed and more of an experiment than a fully-formed thought.
Thomas Weber’s “Surf Noir” guitar sound is a key ingredient for much of Teufelskamin, but it functions less as a solo instrument and more as just another sonic texture. It’s great if you’re looking for moody ambience, less if you’re looking for awe-inspiring guitar work, though “New Ghosts” does feature some pretty epic feedback/noise, which provides a nice cushion for bassist Johannes Frisch and Aumuller to stretch out. Again, though, it feels like too much freedom — the track compresses, stretches and meanders in a way that suggests some confines might have been a good thing. By the time Aumuller starts in with some truly odd vocalizations (think Porky Pig), your ear begins casting about, looking for a melody. Fortunately, though, the group reins that in quickly, and the last several minutes are rather pretty, albeit in a fractured way.
The main problem with Teufelskamin is that Kammerflimmer Kollektief is basically working with two contradictory genres. Free jazz is about visceral displays of emotion, and group improvisation that swells and recedes. Electronic ambient music is largely dependent on a static pulse and airy sonic textures that are anything but visceral. While the group is technicallycombining those genres, they’re weakening them in the process.
But Teufelskamin is an enjoyable record, by and large. It’s a slow-burning sea change of an album, not one to quickly skim over. It’s definitely not an album for all occasions, nor one to put on in mixed company, but it is a unique gem that occasionally lives up to what it dares to accomplish.