Ex-Swans drummer Jonathan Kane finds the link between Howlin' Wolf and avant-garde experimentation.
There's a hallucinatory drone at the bottom of classic blues songs -- Howlin' Wolf's "Moanin' at Midnight" for instance -- that's not too far removed from the mind-changing repetition of contemporary experimental music. Jonathan Kane, who was fascinated with blues before he joined Swans, before he put the powering rhythms under Rhys Chatham's 100 guitar ensembles, before he began collaborating with Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas in Gods and Monsters, brings all these threads together in his first solo album. February links the psychotropic repetition of blues to the intellectual rigor of avant-garde classical, playing simple riffs over and over again until minor shifts in pattern and tone take on reality-warping significance.
Kane plays all the instruments here (guitar, bass and drums) though Igor Cubrilovic adds another guitar on three of five cuts. It's clear from the beginning though, that Kane's drumming sensibility permeates the album. Every instrument becomes a rhythm instrument, tonal in the way that drums can be tonal, but essentially serving to drive the cut forward with minimal embellishments. In "Curl" one of the dual guitar tracks, there's a high staccato guitar motif over the haze-inducing bedrock of the piece. It sounds almost like a banjo, plucked away in abstract patterns, as the song moves inexorably ahead. It's a melody, defined in the loosest way possible, but no more or less important than the surge of cymbals, the eighth-note build of drums that finishes each iteration of the pattern.
"Pops" is sparser, more skeletal, the bass distinct and glowering this time, bent guitar notes flitting in amongst a monster four-four beat. A three-chord change-up breaks its relentless pattern briefly, then it's back to hovering, hazy, blues repetition. "Sis", the final of Kane's wholly original compositions, is jittery and quick, anchored by a thudding kick drum. It feels celebratory, almost danceable with a sort of abstract hoedown rhythm. The drums are freer here, periodically exploding, briefly slipping the bonds of song structure then stepping back into pattern, and you realize that this is what you've been waiting for all along. You wonder if it's the possibility of breakdown that makes repetition so arresting after all.
Kane's version of the traditional blues song "Motherless Child" is February's tensest and most dramatic cut, its shifting chords knit together with subtle runs of bass. The cut builds, adding layer upon layer of feedback to its core, turning densely cataclysmic, then backing off into measured simplicity.
The album ends with "Guitar Trio," based on Rhys Chatham's groundbreaking minimalist composition for electric guitars. Like the other tracks, this one is all about the overtones, about notes you hear and notes you imagine as they weave in and out of repeated riffs.
Casual listeners may be put off by the repetition here, as Kane ponders the same, rhythm-based ideas for six to 12 minutes at a stretch. Yet for those willing to enter into these minimalist, blues-leaning landscapes, there's a continual interplay between theme and variation, and a hallucinatory reward for active listening.