BY FRED MILLS
Approximately midway into this simultaneously sprawling and intimate collaboration between Viennese experimental trio Radian and Giant Sand mainman Howe Gelb there’s an abrupt sizzle of radio static followed by an ever-increasing overload of electronic noise and amplifier distortion. It’s part of the track “From Birth to Mortician,” that white noise blast bookended by gentle crooning/warbling vocal passages from Gelb, and it’s so jarring that the listener would be forgiven for having to pick him- or herself up off the floor. That it’s also business as usual for both Gelb—no stranger to placing unexpected sounds and textures in his own albums—and the sonic anarchists of Radian would suggest that this collection of uneasy listening is the product of a genuine meeting of the minds.
Your frame of mind, certainly, may dictate your response. A track like “The Constant Pitch and Sway” recalls any number of Gelb’s loping, loopy moments, where rhythmic niceties take a back seat to poetic license; yet in its mostly piano-and-guitar ramble, with the Radian men’s cut-ups and intrusions, there’s a distinctively European progressive rock or even freeform jazz vibe that prevails. Here and there the musicians play things relatively straight: “Return to Picacho Peak” is downright haunting in its hushed beauty (it’s about a familiar Arizona landmark), while Gelb’s tender reading of “Moon River” could’ve easily been part of a Great American Songbook compilation. But it’s the unusual tangents that lend the project its staying power, and in those hissing, disintegrating moments of disorientation reside a stark brand of musicality that’s fascinating to experience. It’s at once beautiful and terrifying.
Gelb initially recorded his parts, primarily acoustic guitar and piano plus his voice, in reaction to tracks that Radian sent him, then as they swapped material back and forth each camp applied sundry treatments, with Radian getting (presumably) the final word in their sonic processing. One can only imagine what this summit would sound like were it to be extended to the concert stage. Encore, perhaps?
DOWNLOAD: “Return to Picacho Peak,” “Constant Pitch and Sway”