It’s been five years since Stephen O’Malley & Steve Noble recorded the first St. Francis Duo album of amplified guitar and drumming duets, live, over two nights and four sets at London’s Cafe Oto. I attended the second of those gigs as well as subsequently reviewing the album, which I summed up as “occasionally uncertain” but “ferocious”, a performance of “restrained violence and marshalled anarchy”. Peacemaker Assembly (Trost) is the follow-up, another live set, recorded nearly three years later in the aptly named church of St. Francis de Sales, Philadelphia, and it’s more authoritative on balance – a distillation of the formative experience.
Steve Noble came up via a stint in 80s post-punk group Rip, Rig + Panic and a contemporaneous engagement with Company, Derek Bailey’s improvisation summit. He’s now a free drummer with few equals on the London scene. Stephen O’Malley, from Seattle, has forged doom/drone with Sunn O))), Khanate, and KTL. Noble and O’Malley came together when Noble joined Æthenor, a sui-generis group in which O’Malley played alongside Daniel O’Sullivan (Grumbling Fur, Laniakea) and Kristoffer Rygg of Nordic black metal escapees Ulver.
Where St. Francis Duo (Bo’Weavil) had O’Malley engaging with Noble’s art on Noble’s home turf, Peacemaker Assembly (Trost) has the drummer up against a more entrenched O’Malley in the latter’s native America (albeit Philadelphia’s a long way from O’Malley’s hometown, Seattle).
The new album takes the same format as the old: two cuts culled from two sets, each given utilitarian titles “1 : 19:36” and “2 : 18:04”.
O’Malley leads “1”, having only to tap on the fretboard to stir up dense, bleary chords of sonic fug and smouldering drone. Noble adds cymbal shimmer and portentous kick drum rumbles as the basis for expansive drum rolls that build both momentum and anticipation. O’Malley expertly marshals his feedback, and the drums take on a full, booming sound more in keeping with rock music than yr usual improvisation.
After nine minutes, and a momentary hint at easing off, O’Malley piles on yet more chords in slow-stroked higher and sub-bass counterpoint frequencies, and the heat and pressure rises. Noble occasionally locks onto strands in O’Malley’s lines and surges along them, but he’s constantly variable, striking a perfect balance of tonal variation and implacable through-rhythm. Despite the overall linearity of the performance, there’s plenty of nuance and dynamic sensitivity at play in its relentless crescendo.
Then the duo pull closer together, a twin injection of melodic elaboration seeming to suggest a ripeness fit for further elaboration, but they’re actually calling time, and their performance peaks and draws down in short order.
O’Malley’s touch is lighter on “2”, setting up ringing harmonics as Noble plays fast, freestyle rounds with brushes, introducing syncopated beats as O’Malley varies his pitch and tone to enliven a swelling, tonally complex drone. Nine minutes into this performance, and the duo reach a dramatic pitch of contained volatility with a grinding, metallic edge. That invites an explosion of percussive ebb and surge, which pulls against the grain of O’Malley’s wall of sound.
The more protracted resolution of this second, more complex set allows a levelling out, in which Noble, out on point, leaves off drumming, signalling his cessation with a small bell, and accompanies the dying embers of O’Malley’s attack with a wheezy scraping sound.
There are probably few surprises here for anyone who’s had a taste of this duo before, but the performances have a solidity and well-roundedness that makes the album more satisfying and conducive to repeated listening than the original, more uneven St Francis Duo. For that reason alone, it’s bound to appeal much more to the doom/drone demographic.
Steve Noble drums & percussion; Stephen O’Malley guitars & amplifiers.
Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble – St Francis Duo (Bo’Weavil, 2012).
Nazoranai – The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has it Arrived Already..?
Peter Brötzmann & Steve Noble – I Am Here Where Are You.