The Spanish Donkey – RAOUL [TrackList follows] – RareNoise RNR054, 70:11 [4/7/15] ***1/2:
(Joe Morris – electric guitar; Jamie Saft – Hammond & Korg organ, Minimoog synthesizer, Echoplex piano; Mike Pride – drums)
It may not seem like it, but the Spanish Donkey’s sophomore release, the 70-minute RAOUL, is rooted in the blues. The foundation might be blues, but the end result is a storm of noise from Joe Morris’ amped-up and distorted electric guitar, Mike Pride’s thundering drums and Jamie Saft’s droning keyboards (Hammond and Korg organs, synth, and Echoplex piano). Morris is well-known in the free jazz or contemporary music realms. He’s been the leader on over 40 records since the early ‘80s, and has been a sideman on approximately 50 other albums. Recently, he and Saft were part of another RareNoise Records project, Plymouth. RAOUL has been issued on CD, 180-gram vinyl and hi-res digital download. This review refers to the compact disc version.
Saft says the design for the latest recording by Spanish Donkey was “this was an idea of creating a monolithic, microtonal blues vibe and having Joe react to that. Joe is one of the few musicians that can really work within a deep microtonal environment. He is on such a high level with his intuitive approach to microtones and improvising within that space. And so this record essentially is us applying that microtonal blues thing to our free improvising path, and trusting that path completely.”
That path may not be easy to navigate. In fact, it might prove volatile and even heavy-going. Which, given the trio’s name, is not ironic. A Spanish donkey is a torture device which inflicts pain when a subject straddles a narrow board. Such devices were used during the Inquisition, during the American Colonial period, and during the U.S. Civil War. Morris, Saft and Pride don’t actually want to hurt anyone’s ears, but their uncompromising music is loud, brutal and extreme. The threesome’s sheer force is felt on the massive, 32-minute opening title track. Morris’ discordant guitar is at the forefront. He abstains from any attempt at a clean, jazz-like quality. Rather, he generates tension with effects pedals – particularly echo, wah-wah and delay. Meanwhile, Saft layers an underpinning of recurring, cycling keyboard sounds which eventually swell up from the bedrock. Saft keeps the propulsion going with myriad percussive changes: only during the final minutes does he construct anything remotely like a backbeat. During the half hour improvisation the trio stretches harmonics, pitch and tonality. Morris explains, “I don’t usually set effects like a rock guitar player; I improvise with a whole sonic palette. So, I am constantly switching effects on and off, whether it’s delay, fuzz, ring modulator or whatever. There are a lot of different things going on but it’s a very narrow range that we’re working in, in terms of time and harmony. It’s trying to do a lot with very little. It’s about making a very intense thing happen with a slow time feel and a very tight tonal range.” The outcome is abrasive and, by contradiction, subtle at the same time; the lengthy music is precise but also piercingly threatening, more akin to heavy metal than accessible jazz.
There’s no connotation of reprieve as the CD continues, but there is a more defined prog-rock posture during the 22-minute “Behavioral Sink.” Morris’ guitar remains caked with dirty noises, while Pride showcases his distinct percussive prowess, both energetic and purposely asymmetrical. Saft’s organ has a church-like timbre, similar to something from the early 1970s by Keith Emerson or Klaus Schulze. He often arcs across the keyboard and supplies counterpoints, a background drone, and contributes bass characteristics. Saft’s Hammond organ surges through the frequency range, as he provides an anchor for Morris and Pride’s non-stop guitar and drums barrage. The microtonalities establish a sensation of repetition, which may be off-putting for some, and is somewhat analogous to Philip Glass’ 1970s minimalism works, such as Music in 12 Parts. “Behavioral Sink”—like early Glass—is a detailed composition which utilizes intricate, unusual harmonics, but may be regarded as unlistenable by those unable or indisposed to go beyond the blaring and dissonant surface noises. And make no mistake, this is loud, loud music! The concluding piece, the nearly 16-minute “Dragon Fly Jones” has a slightly brighter incline. Saft has a warmer ambiance due to his Echoplex piano, while Pride reiterates the tune’s less-gloomy temperament with some application of cymbals. But Morris maintains his slow, crushing and frequently echo-etched guitar lines, which will distract listeners unaccustomed to this kind of grinding, heavy-slanted music. The ongoing microtonal elements form tight knots of harmonics, as the material coils in a nervous loop.
TrackList: Raoul; Behavioral Sink; Dragon Fly Jones.