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, and if you know that album you could use its Atsuo/Herzog duet “N.L.T.” to set your compass. The closest thing to it here, “Wray” works a similar vein of bowed-bass and -cymbals threnody with artfully scraped viola and a luminescent, increasingly anaerobic ambience.
Before that, there are two slices of isolationist doom: tolling guitar chords overlaid with electronic shimmers and Kurihara’s siren feedback fx on “Ghost Parade”, and 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 three remaining tracks are longer, though the album is lifted by a lack of unnecessary ballast. “Island Epiphany” (12:45) is a spacey, cavernous construction, a void punctuated by dubbed-out, lethargically monolithic drumming. A submerged trace of melody reminds me, obliquely, of Bauhaus’ “Bella Lugosi is Dead”, and Kurihara extends that in an extended solo of coiled psych guitar feedback and sustain that becomes ever more taut and tensioned.
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 soundtrack. It’s surprisingly tuneful for a slice of ambient doom/drone, despite becoming increasingly arid and baleful.
Between these two heavy, brooding pieces sits “Giant”, ten warped-drone minutes of shimmering harmonics played on what sounds like harmonium, viola, electric keys and bowed bass (instrumentation isn’t specified). It’s not necessarily the best track on the album, but it is no doubt the most beautiful, and proof 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 that defines its own parameters.
Ensemble Pearl was initially convened in Tokyo to create music for a multimedia play by Gisèle Vienne, before the group relocated to a New York studio to record this follow-up with producer and engineer Randall Dunn. That was back in 2009. They’ve apparently reconvened since then as an expanded ensemble to record and tour a follow-up.
Eyvind Kang was evidently afforded more freedom to determine the shape and character of his parts than a mere session player, but 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 on anything Boris have recorded lately (to say nothing of their high-voltage live shows, which he effectively leads from behind). O’Malley, too, though he’s often engaged directly with improv and avant-garde art musics in the past, plays with a delicacy and refinement that’s not often 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