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Glenn Kotche and Sō Percussion: Drumkit Quartets

Drumkit Quartets is all about composing for percussion, but Kotche and Sō Percussion see this not as a constraint but as a place to begin far-flung experiments.

Glenn Kotche and Sō Percussion

Drumkit Quartets

US Release: 2016-02-26
UK Release: 2016-02-26
Label: Cantaloupe

Glenn Kotche transformed the sound of Wilco when he joined the band. His incredible sense of rhythm mixed with unique technical skills and a sense of improvisation and the avant-garde mixed perfectly with the shifts that band was making in the early 2000s. But Kotche's work beyond the band -- with other collaborators, in the duo On Fillmore, or in his own solo albums -- can be just as striking and inventive. Kotche has now followed his strong 2014 record, Adventureland, with Drumkit Quartets. The album finds Kotche collaborating with Sō Percussion, a group of musicians that have played works from John Cage and Steve Reich as well as created collaborations with the likes of Shara Warden, Dan Deacon, and others from various corners of the musical world.

Their exploratory nature blends well with Kotche on the record. As its title suggests, Drumkit Quartets is all about composing for percussion, but Kotche and Sō Percussion see this not as a constraint but as a place to begin far-flung experiments. Opener "Drumkit Quartet #51" shows right off that there's not much in the way of boundaries for these players. Spare, careful xylophone notes ring out into space, each one sweet but nascent, never quite hinting at a shape. Then distant clicks and buzzes drift in, faint echoes bloom out into the negative space around those struck keys, and all of a sudden the song is a squall, fiery with noise in the center, haunted by voices at the edges.

The album deals in several opposing poles. In that song, we get empty spaces versus heavy textures. "Drumkit Quartet #1" shows the players at their most ferocious. Drums are struck violently, coated with a kind of industrial skronk, and the immediacy of it following the slow build of "#51" is jarring, and it clashes nicely against the chiming layers of what follows, three movements of "Drumkit Quartet #3". The album moves from structures to chaos, from the concrete to the ambient. "Drumkit Quartet #6" follows "#3" with improvised rolls, but there's always a faint pulse, a propulsion that offsets the stillness of "#3".

The players are at their most unwieldy on the 13-minute "#50", a song that turns percussion into an out-and-out noise experiment. Bending drones open the track, covered over by howling sirens, and the song fills a room like nothing else on the record. It's a fascinating turn to start, suggesting some sort of percussive nature to drone, as you can still hear a faint clatter and scrape around those wails. They seem more like notes struck than sounds blooming. The track eventually bottoms out into skittering improvisations -- barely struck cymbals, distant snares, the clang of bells and shuffle of brushes -- that present some of the most voracious and energetic exploring on the record. The movement may push too far into noise percussion that seems to oversell the point, using what sounds like the roll of disposable cameras to build beats, which sounds small in the wake of those other improvisations, but the sense of discovery is clear throughout.

Some of those moments where the record pushes too far feel less like they're reaching out to a listener and more like the players are coiling in on themselves, like they're speaking their own language or telling an inside joke. Thankfully, Drumkit Quartets avoids this more often than not and, instead, gives us a circular listen we can roll right back through. The album ends with another version of "#51", subtitled "Chicago Realization". It's a more tangle composition than the first, though it may not change our view on the song by much, but it still gets at the central charm of this record. Everything here is carefully built, but these guys are too restless, in a good way, to let sounds hold their shape for long.


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