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Death Ambient - Death Ambient [Tzadik - 1995]

Death Ambient is another one of these improvising new music groups that the artists on Tzadik have a habit of forming. This one consists of Kata Hideki on bass, Fred Frith on Guitar and Ikue Mori on her customary drum machines and electronics.

The music on this eponymous debut album is to say, a bit odd. The players seem to have taken the approach to squeeze only the most unconventional and bizarre sounds from their instruments. Very rarely can you pick up any sounds that you would associate with a bass or guitar. Instead the songs progress around soundscape and textural compositions that veer around the areas of musique concrete, noise, and free jazz. The first track Prophecy seems to take in all these influences across the longest of the pieces here. Beginning with light ambient sounds before cascades of dissonant electronic and acoustic (not that you can often tell the difference here) noise fall around your ears. There a lot of simple sound effects used in quite bizarre ways that add to the soundtrack element. Mori fires frog sound, gun shots and creaking doors across Frith and Hideki’s string scrapings and noise bursts.

The second track has a slightly more conventional structure and a very oriental feel to it. Sweet high range guitar picking and bass plucking accompany Mori’s subtle electronic touches. Sounding a bit like a score for one of those tense moments in Kung Fu films when the young apprentice prepares to take on the bad guys, it’s a stark piece that stands out after the noise festival of the album opener. Although there is an excellent feedback solo from Frith near the end of the track.
Hedge trimmer and Alchemy send us back to the dissonance and drama of Prophecy with more strangely treated guitar and bass juxtaposed against desolate and atmospheric Mori electronics.

The album progresses in this fashion for most of it’s fifteen tracks (most quite short with the album only being forty seven minutes long) short atmospheric pieces being followed by noisy feedback and drum machine duels. Broken Blue is an exception where the emphasis is more on percussion with all the players firing short bursts of noise in a sharp staccato fashion. Like a lot of music involving Ikue Mori many of the pieces sound almost like tape composition, as if they have been meticulously cut and spliced together. It is a testament to this downtown legends ability that this effect is created by her operating a laptop in real time accompanying acoustic musicians.

The final two tracks are in great contrast to each other, the first Flash is a huge wall of guitar and bass feedback around which the electronic rhythms and samples dance and thrash about in a sort of deranged war dance. Busts of high pitched scree break though the wall and further batter the listeners ears, in a piece that recalls the early eighties industrial scene more than the hip world of turn of the millennium New York.  The final track Ways Out is an almost post rock sounding landscape of delicate picking and glacial tinkering electronics. There is, like most of this album a distinct sense of dread or suspense but here it draws in the listener to pick out the delicate strands of sound and appreciate the technique of these three very talented, very contemporary musicians. Death Ambient is yet another shining example of new music from downtown New York.

Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5

Duncan Simpson
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