The Upshot: Evoking Steve Reich, it’s a lovely piece of work, balancing intellectual rigor with beauty.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
A flock of marimbas. A covey of xylophones. A herd of vibraphones. The technical term for multiple, massed, tonal percussion instruments escapes me just now, but making it difficult to describe this album from the Swans/Shearwater percussionist Thor Harris (and friends). But the sound that’s generated by these instruments is intricate and bewitching, as one, two or even three mallet-struck instruments plink riffs that intersect and interlock and rattle against each other, transparently, luminously like a glass-bead curtain of music. Add to that swooping swirls of violin, wavery washes of mellotron and wordless vocals and you have The Subversive Nature of Kindness, an alternatingly hypnotic, cathartic and enchanting piece of work.
This is Harris’ second album with these particular friends, fellow percussionists Peggy Ghorbani on marimba and Sarah Gautier on marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, organ, voice, mellotron and piano. They are joined by a rather large ensemble, producer Jeremy Barnes from a Hawk and a Hacksaw, who also played a number of stringed and keyed instruments, Heather Trost, also of a Hawk and a Hacksaw, who sang and played violin and viola, Jordan Geiger from Hospital Ships, John Dieterich from Deerhoof and a small choir of singers, including, notably, Michael Gira of Swans and Norwegian experimental singer Stine Janvind Motland.
The singers, by the way, work more as providers of texture than in the usual forefronted way. Motland sings, for instance, on a track that is partly named for her, “Swimming with Stina” contributing vibrating, staccato tones that sound like celestial beings who purr like cats. Gira puts his imprint on the closing “Grassfire,” a shimmering puzzle palace of interlocking motifs which turns chaotic and urgent midway through with his nattering, muttering “nanananana”s.
Yet even so, the percussion instruments take central roles. “Dead Man’s Hand” begins with a spare motif on marimba (or xylophone or whatever it is) and some gong notes for structure. A violin weaves in and around, fetching, beckoning you in to this strange mathematical space bounded by percussion. It’s a dense mesh of textures, a heady, enveloping dream inside an equation.
The Subversive Nature of Kindness, of course, evokes Steve Reich, who also wrote for multiple marimbas. However, it feels warmer, less abstract and more dreamily human, whether tinged with Native American spirituality (“Standing Rock”) or lit with the broody drama of melloton (“Carpet Creeps”). It’s a lovely piece of work, balancing intellectual rigor with beauty, and well worth assembling a pride, a mob, a gang or even a congress of malleted instruments together for.
DOWNLOAD: “Standing Rock” “Grassfire”