If you’re only familiar with drummer Brian Chase through his work with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, you might be surprised by the release of his duet album with pianist/composer Anthony Coleman. If you are aware of Chase’s side project Drums and Drones, then you’re already acquainted with his unorthodox approach to the drum kit. Mixing percussion with electronics, the aptly named band proved that Chase had more in common with, say, Milford Graves than your average pop/rock drummer.
In this light, his decision to team up with Coleman doesn’t sound like such a gigantic leap. There are no electronic drones used in Arcades though, their first and so far only joint album. The closest thing to altered sounds is perhaps a little piano preparation – or maybe Coleman is just inserting his hand under the lid from time to time. Either way, the two musicians tease many sounds out of their instruments. Even Coleman himself is surprised by the possibilities at play: “From the first time we played together I have never understood how Bian manages to hit those overtones that exactly match and echo the chords and sonorities that I’m playing.” Tell all the drummer jokes you want, but if you can stun someone like Anthony Coleman with your musicality. That takes skill.
Arcades does not swing, it sprawls. This is full-on exploratory avant-garde improvisation. The two musicians feed off one another so thoroughly that it’s often hard to determine just who is driving the idea at any given moment. As the title track is revving up, it sounds like Chase and Coleman both decided to get louder at the exact same moment. Ditto for the diminuendos, and you can forget all about factors like tempo, meter, and key signature. Coleman may decide to perform some conventional chord patterns on the piano, but it’s just another thing that happens within the moment. It’s there, and then it’s gone. The extreme dynamics shifts and atonality take over as Coleman and Chase push and pull one another away from any fixed idea.
The gentlest moment of Arcades has to be “Crepuscule”, its shortest track. But then, to call the seven-minute jam “gentle” is a bit misleading. The dynamics stay low and the sounds are sparse, but Coleman’s harmonies are tense, and Chase’s silences can be deafening. Gentle from a distance, teeth-grindingly strained up close. The album’s concluding track, “With Cunning”, attempts to bridge the gap between the noisey free jazz of other tracks with the harsh introspection of “Crepuscule”. The product is Coleman and Chase having their avant-garde cake and eating it, where deadened piano strings accompanied by a solitary cymbal tap speak just as loudly as both instruments falling down a staircase.
Musicality aside, Arcades is a celebration of sound, of sound reacting to sound, and the cumulative effect of two musicians constantly upping the ante. Through all that sound, the second nature musicality of Coleman and Chase could be overlooked. But wouldn’t you rather have it that way than the other way around? No one likes a show-off, unless that show-off doesn’t realize that they are a show-off.