In 2014, at the De La Warr Pavilion on Britain’s south coast, Oren Ambarchi and Johan Berthling played a set that spanned five hours, give or take the first 30 minutes, for which the duo left a prepared Hammond organ to drone unattended while they took coffee – five hours in which they spooled out, looped and layered waves of feedback and sustain judiciously charged with cathartic passages of riff, bass pulse and tidal rhythm. It was a deeply, truly immersive and transporting experience, which evidenced an exponential advance on the music laid down for their first recording ten years earlier, 31 minutes of edgy, laminate drone titled My Days Are Darker Than Your Nights (Häpna, 2003).
Ambarchi is a prolific guitar experimentalist. Berthling is less well known, but he’s perhaps the more impressively versatile musician. He’s best known as a bassist, both for his work in Tape, a trio that purveys ravishing, luminous post-rock, or for Fire! and Fire! Orchestra, an occasionally expanded trio that plays an amalgam of jazz and Spiritualized rock. He’s also adept at out-and-out free music; witness the recent, exemplary Arashi.
On Tongue Tied (Häpna), Berthling deploys the same combination of basses and Hammond organ that meshed so effectively with ambarchi’s percussion and processed guitar at the De La Warr Pavillion, so this was an album I’d been anticipating. For myself, and for anyone else expecting deep immersion, on first exposure it’s anti-climactic. But as an attempt to distill long-form music into something more compact and accessible, it’s entirely successful.
Shaped for vinyl (a CD is available, but only as an insert to the vinyl edition), Tongue Tied features just two pieces of music, “Tongue” and “Tied”, each lasting 15 minutes.
The intro to “Tongue” compacts shimmering Hammond chords and radiant guitar harmonics into a corona pierced by pulses of rich contrabass. Synthesizer tones thread through rotary Hammond drones, all laced with crisp, insistent cymbal patter, subsuming the relaxed, melodic warmth suggested by the plucked bull fiddle, which is anyways distorted by stroboscopic effects induced by electronics. More rigid and synthetic elements later emerge as previously merged sound strata differentiate, and the piece assumes motorik pulse and impetus.
“Tied” is a new beginning. A processed contrabass pulsing in near stillness. Then again a grainy whorl of electronics, and a brisk patterning of cymbals. Layer accreting to layer achieves substance, then gets pared back to thin shimmering. A pulse, again analogous to Krautrock, morphs into express rhythm threaded by pinpoint rhythm guitar. Soon Ambarchi and Berthling are locked into emphatic propulsion through relentless ostinato rhythm, implacably forward-flowing, on track to imminent short-order disassembly.
It’s a brilliant encapsulation/distillation of the more diffuse music the duo perform in concert. A studio dis- and re-assembly, all parts refined and retro-fitted, impact-enhanced, it’s a different sort of experience, and it leaves me wanting more.
Oren Ambarchi guitar, drums, synthesizer; Johan Berthling electric bass, double bass, Hammond organ, synthesizer.
Richard Pinhas and Oren Ambarchi – Tikkun.
Tape – Casino.
Akira Sakata, Johan Berthling, Paal Nilssen-Love – Arashi.
Fire! with Oren Ambarchi: In the Mouth – a Hand.
Oren Ambarchi – Audience of One.
Buy Tongue Tied direct from Häpna.