Merzbow/Mats Gustafsson/Balázs Pándi


On paper, this is a three-way marriage made in noise heaven. Merzbow teams up with frequent collaborator Balázs Pándi, a drummer whose rhythm style is somewhere between European free improv and heavy metal, and Scandinavian free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, who seems omnipresent these days, which is no bad thing. When the Swede and Merzbow joined Sonic Youth onstage at Roskilde a few years back for a performance that resulted in the amazing Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth album, the pair effectively blew the New Yorkers off the stage, such was the unkempt potency of their noise/sax interplay. It remains possibly my favourite Sonic Youth release (sorry, Murray Street lovers!) as both a tribute to the band’s open-mindedness and to the power of noise music to bridge genre divides.

Cuts certainly starts off promisingly, as the colossal opener ‘Evil Knives. Lines’ powers out of the speakers like a derailed train, driven by Pándi’s whirlwind of drums and those instantly-recognisable sheets of noise Merzbow has developed so expertly over the years. Comparisons to a mixture of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space initially seem justified when contemplating Cuts, because of course Merzbow is the greatest disciple of Reed’s atonal magnum opus, whilst Pándi displays a deftness of touch that belies his muscularity. The drummer resists the urge to merely go head-to-head with Masami Akita in the volume stakes, displaying commendable restraint across the album’s five tracks, notably on the 19-minute ‘Deep Lines. Cuts’, where he slowly builds up rattles of snares and toms that morph into a rolling backbeat resembling Klaus Schulze on Ash Ra Tempel’s ‘Amboss’.

Where the comparison to ‘Trane falls down is that Gustafsson rarely gets a chance to make his sax heard clearly over the endless torrent of shifting distorted oscillations from Merzbow. Instead, the Swede turns to electronics himself, as if defeated in his attempts to project his skronks and squalls. Indeed, the album’s best moments are scattered throughout ‘Deep Lines. Cuts’, when Pándi stops drumming altogether and Akita pulls back from the sheer brutality of his noise, allowing himself to engage in something approaching a duet with Gustafsson, either on sax or electronics. But these are brief interludes in what at times becomes a sea of electronic atonality. I like that kind of thing, for sure, but it’s not why I’d pick up a record with the name Mats Gustafsson on it.

The pleasing reverse, of course, is that this means this is Merzbow at his most virulent and abrasive. At times, his swirling clouds of brittle, high-pitched, shimmering noise get so blasted as to sound like the consumptive screaming of a dying man, and there’s no attempt on Akita’s part to really rein in the force of his walls of distortion. Mostly, Pándi and Gustafsson appear to be following Akita’s lead, pulling away and stopping altogether at times to let him fill the entirety of the sonic space (this might have something to do, of course, with the fact that Merzbow mixed the album). What is impressive is the level of listening going on on Cuts. The trio could have been satisfied with simply battering away at each other and the album would still have seen the light of day, but, with Balázs Pándi keep a tight handle on each track’s progression with his alternately hard-hitting and measured rhythms, Cuts never descends into a full-on mess. However, that doesn’t mean it soars, either. With Gustafsson drawn away so frequently from his horn, and grooviness or sensuality that could have crept into these tracks is completely dissolved and we are ultimately mostly left with five expertly-managed but exhausting slabs of noise. Again, I like that kind of thing, but Cuts could have been so much more, given the personnel involved.

It’s probably best to view Cuts as an aside in the grand scheme of these three men’s separate outputs. It won’t go down as a significant opus for any of them, but they clearly enjoyed making it and it has enough abrasion (so much abrasion!) to satisfy most noise fans. Those of us hoping for that little bit of extra specialness will have to go back to our copies of Pulse Demon and Andre Side Af Sonic Youth. Which is no bad thing.

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