When a group of musicians lists an eclectic roster of influences, it often has more to do with what’s on their record shelves than what elements feed into their music. At least, I thought that was the case with Secret People, the new band formed by drummer Kate Gentile and guitarist Dustin Carlson with Nathaniel Morgan on saxophone. Merzbow, Autechre, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman – are they just trying to impress us? But when I listen to their self-titled debut and make it to the conclusion of the whimsically titled lead-off track “choc(h)oyotes”, I realize that Secret People aren’t bluffing after all.
The music starts off sounding like modern jazz; a twisted melody, tricky rhythms, and lots of forward momentum played with equal parts freedom and precision. But about one minute out from the end, Gentile’s vibraphone slows down as Carlson and Morgan vamp at their own rate. That’s when the Xenakis moment comes in, with Gentile letting the sustain of the vibraphone do the talking while some other ghostly sound floats into place, likely one of her cymbals. The music fades, but birds and outdoor ambience take their place. This is far more up the Autechre alley than anything resembling Dave Douglas or the Bad Plus. Seven minutes into the album, Secret People have earned this list of influences since they actually use them.
Carving out your syncretism is one thing, but Secret People also have a considerable amount of musicianship coursing through the three of them. One listen to the heavy riffing of “legitimate perseverance” should be enough to convince you, though the temerity they inject into every note and drum stroke doesn’t hurt the music. Carlson’s melody for “Peephole” stands in contrast to Morgan’s fierce soloing at the start if you can call such an atonally upside-down figure a melody. Oddly enough, it isn’t until after Morgan’s solo that the guitar and saxophone start playing in unison, telling us that Secret People are perfectly comfortable switching around a standard jazz rule if they feel like it. And should “Peephole” slowly dissolve into near-silence with little more than the hum of a guitar amp and some cymbal splashed, then why not?
The music of Secret People is not as random as some might think. While there are moments of improvisation, Gentile and Carlson have spent a great deal of time mapping it all out beforehand. For many years, the two were roommates and co-workers, allowing them to form a strong bond that only galvanized their musical strengths. “There were countless hours (literally hundreds) spent co-composing and rehearsing the music,” states the press release. The same document also discusses the numerous other projects where Gentile has participated as a composer. So before you dismiss Secret People as an album where three people are throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, know that two of them were already doing that ten years ago.
Granted, it’s difficult to imagine Carlson sitting down with pen and staff paper to write “ascetic dust”, a one-minute track in which he channels his inner-Derek Bailey. But for all I know, maybe he did! By the time you’ve made it this far into the album, it hardly matters because the results are consistently musical and a little bizarre. Extra attention should be given to the final track, “swamp gaze”, and not just because it’s the longest song at 14 minutes. It travels through the most amount of changes in the shortest spans of time. It begins with Gentile’s rolling thunder and Morgan spinning in ascending circles. Then it breaks down into cowbell taps and noteless guitar noodling. After climbing out of their self-dug hole, Gentile and Morgan carry on as before while Carlson goes on creating a backdrop just by rapidly picking out single notes. We’re not even halfway through the song when Gentile starts dropping a hefty doom beat against a dangerously low bass. There’s still a great deal of racket to bliss out to, including a moment when Carlson dials up an octave effect on one of his pedals.
The last few moments of “swamp gaze” are nowhere nearly as bold as the rest of the album. The band taps out the same note in unison at varying rates, leading one to wonder if they are building up to the next explosion of sound. That explosion never comes. Is this just another way of Secret People messing with people’s expectations? Or does it serve a higher purpose? Again, the results speak louder than the intentions, though the deliberate aspects of Secret People’s music is a necessary part of their foundation. However you approach it, you’re still in for a treat.