The lineup of Masami “Merzbow” Akita, Mats Gustafsson, and Balázs Pándi was already a dream team when the trio recorded their 2013 album Cuts, but for the encore they upped the ante considerably, adding Thurston Moore to form a quartet of the improvisational scene’s heaviest hitters. It isn’t the first time Moore has worked with the pair of Gustafsson and Merzbow, as both featured on the Andre Sider af Sonic Youth album in 2008, but unlike that somewhat bloated earlier effort (which featured Sonic Youth’s then five-member lineup in addition to the other players), Cuts of Guilt is the unmistakable work of a lean, cohesive unit.
The worst tendency of free jazz and noise recordings alike is to get lost in formlessness, improvised instrumentation wandering aimlessly without ever finding a groove or hook to settle in. It’s unfortunately all too common to listen to a noise album and leave without any memory of what the album even sounded like, other than a general impression that a lot of amplifier feedback was involved; however, in drummer Balázs Pándi, Cuts of Guilt finds its anchor. His propulsive polyrhythmic drumming is the undeniable backbone of each of the double LP’s four long-form suites, giving the other players ample room to experiment without ever giving them a chance to lose the script. Hearing Pándi renders any questions about why Merzbow chose him as the drummer in his live band hopelessly redundant, he’s a showstopper even when surrounded by the best in the field.
While the others are indeed secondary, they aren’t shown up easily. Whatever Thurston Moore’s guitar playing may lack in technical virtuosity – the man has never had any patience for guitar-hero theatricality in his music – is completely made up for in the stunning variety of sounds he coaxes out of his instrument. Gustafsson and Merzbow both work with a number of electronics throughout the album, yet Moore keeps up with intensity to spare. Although much of his playing is textural (as it always has been, even on the most conventional of Sonic Youth releases), the addition of his presence alone is enough to mark Cuts of Guilt as a significant improvement upon its predecessor. Him and Merzbow play off each other to build city-sized soundscapes out of the suggestions found in Pándi’s drumlines, with Merzbow’s typically unsettling harsh-noise approach providing a distinct air of menace to the proceedings – it isn’t difficult to make noise, but it’s hard as hell to make noise sound as nasty as the nauseating climax of “Too Late, Too Sharp – It is Over”.
The playing on display on Cuts of Guilt does have one flaw, though, and that is in Mats Gustafsson’s questionable decision to favour electronics over his signature brass and woodwinds. His aggressive, frantic saxophones on “Replaced by Shame – Only Two Left” provide some of the album’s best moments, and yet for the rest of the album he sticks with backing Merzbow up on the electronic noise. While it’s perfectly understandable for a musician, particularly one as experimentally-inclined as Gustafsson, to not want to stick with just doing one thing, it’s a shame that a man with such a well-earned reputation as one of the most exciting saxophone players around doesn’t spend much time with the instrument he’s most proficient with. It isn’t a flaw in the sense that any of the songs without his sax playing seem lacking for its absence, though, and as flaws go it’s hardly lethal.
While the well-worn arguments against noise music usually hinge on the idea that “anyone could do it”, the group of Merzbow, Gustafsson, Pándi, and Moore preempt any such criticism by making an album that would be well nigh-impossible for anyone else to replicate. Four players at the top of their game, making exciting, confrontational music that stays with you long after it’s over – nothing easy about that.