Ensemble Pearl is comprised of Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley; Bill Herzog, former bassist with Jesse Sykes’ country psych band, the Sweet Hereafter; Boris’ drummer Atsuo; and psych-guitar troubadour (and frequent Boris collaborator), Michio Kurihara of Ghost. Two guests—violist Eyvind Kang, and Timba Harris, a multi-instrumentalist who elsewhere works with Trey Spruance—also make significant contributions.
O’Malley, Herzog and Atsuo were key players on the Boris/Sunn 0))) collaboration Altar, which might be enough to suggest that you shouldn’t expect to second-guess Ensemble Pearl pre-audition; but if you know Altar, you might use its Atsuo/Herzog duet “N.L.T.” to set your compass. After two short tracks of isolationist doom—tolling guitar chords overlaid with electronic shimmers and Kurihara’s siren feedback fx on “Ghost Parade”; a miasma of portentous bass, chiming guitar and reverberant drum hits, not unlike the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Time”, narcotised, on “Painting on a Corpse”—the brief Ensemble Pearl track “Wray” works a vein akin to the bowed-bass and -cymbals threnody of “N.L.T.”, this time with artfully scraped viola and luminescent, increasingly anaerobic ambience.
The three remaining tracks are longer, though the album is lifted by its lack of unnecessary ballast. “Island Epiphany” (12:45) is a spacey, cavernous construction, its void punctuated by dubbed-out, lethargically monolithic drumming: a submerged trace of melody reminds me, obliquely, of Bauhaus’ “Bella Lugosi is Dead”, but this piece slowly accrues a cocoon of lacerative guitarwork. The closing number, “Sexy Angle” (19:50), is similarly plangent, a torpid, brooding, slo-mo recap of the whole thing, leavened by guitar work that carries the dry-desert twang of Ry Cooder’s spartan Paris, Texas OST, but becoming increasingly arid and baleful.
Between these two heavy, brooding pieces sits “Giant”, a ten-minute warped-drone piece of shimmering harmonics, the ensemble playing mostly what sounds like harmonium, viola, electric keys and bowed bass (the details aren’t specified). It’s not necessarily the best track on the album, but it is no doubt the most beautiful and proof besides that Ensemble Pearl is neither a spin-off from any of the participants’ more famous projects nor a derivative genre indulgence, but a uniquely individuated work which defines its own parameters.
Ensemble Pearl was initially convened in Tokyo to create music for a multimedia play by Gisèle Vienne. They then relocated to a New York studio, to record this follow-up with producer and engineer Randall Dunn. That was back in 2009. The group has apparently since reconvened as an expanded ensemble to record and tour a follow-up.
Since Eyvind Kang was evidently afforded more freedom to determine the shape and character of his parts than a mere session player, I’d like to know more precisely how Timba Harris contributed to Ensemble Pearl. Of the main men, Atsuo’s frequent self-effacement is notable; he exercises a great deal more restraint here than any of the latter works of Boris have required (to say nothing of their high-voltage live shows, which he effectively leads from behind). O’Malley, also, though he’s often engaged directly with improv and avant-garde art musics in the past, plays here with a delicacy and refinement that’s not often been necessitated elsewhere.
Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble – St Francis Duo
Sunn O))) and Nurse with Wound at Koko, 12 June 2012
I’ll Be Your Mirror 2012 – Slayer, Sleep, Wolves in the Throne Room, Melvins, and YOB at Alexandra Palace