Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble – St Francis Duo

This ferocious dialogue between avant-metal guitarist Stephen O’Malley and freestyle drummer and percussionist Steve Noble, recorded live over two nights in August 2011, affirms an unlikely but effective partnership.

Having begun his career with post-punk group Rip, Rig + Panic in the early 80s, Noble has become a mainstay of London’s improvised music scene with a primary locus in Cafe Oto, where St Francis Duo (Bo’Weavil) was recorded. O’Malley, from Seattle, is most closely associated with his doom/drone group SunnO))) and the earlier, more extreme outfit, Khanate, though he’s also half of KTL, alongside electronica pioneer Peter Rehberg.

In 2011 Noble joined O’Malley in Æthenor, a sui-generis outfit in which their percussion and guitar combine with the keyboards and electronics of Daniel O’Sullivan and Kristoffer Rygg, from Norwegian black metal-turned-experimental band Ulver. The syzygy between the O’Malley/Noble and O’Sullivan/Rygg axes was responsible for much of the magic on Æthenor’s fine 2011 album En Form for Blå. As a duo, cut adrift from O’Sullivan and Rygg’s cinematic soundscapes, Noble and O’Malley lock horns more viscerally.

In Sunn O))), O’Malley’s guitar is generally subsumed within enveloping waves of mantric drone. Here, caught up in Noble’s percussive barrage, his every sound is clearly individuated, stressed, wracked and storm-tossed. Not a vastly experienced improviser like Noble, O’Malley is nevertheless a creative and resourceful musician, and this is very much a pairing of equals.

St Francis Duo is available as a download, single CD, or double vinyl. Although vinyl isn’t a format I’ve any affection for it makes sense here, with each night of the duo’s residency represented on a separate disc, one set per side. The condensation of the two nights into a little over 76 minutes makes for a demanding straight-through listen, and I find it’s best to take it one performance at a time.

On the opening set (track 1 of 4), Noble launches straight into a thunderous drum burst that carries a hint of Rip Rig’s punker tribalism, and O’Malley responds with barbed intensity. After just a couple of minutes it’s clear that this level of aggression isn’t sustainable, and the duo ease down. The ensuing exchange is sometimes uncertain, and rough edges make it apparent that the duo dynamic hasn’t yet bedded down. Their response is to open both sets up into spacious, reverberant caverns of punctuated silence.

On the second night, the duo lock together with more spontaneity. In the first set (track 3) they achieve a searing intensity comparable to early Fushitsusha, and there are further parallels with Haino Keiji’s power trio in the second set (track 4), which is characterised by a sinuous withholding, as Noble and O’Malley skilfully manage a tension in restrained violence and marshalled anarchy. It’s magnificent stuff, a two-man slash-and-burn campaign in musical no-mans land.

Related Posts
Nazoranai – The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has it Arrived Already..?.
Ikue Mori and Steve Noble – Prediction and Warning.
Brötzmann, Adasiewicz, Edwards, Noble – Mental Shake + Brötzmann, Noble – I Am Here Where Are You.
Sunn O))) and Nurse with Wound at Koko, 12 June 2012.

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