If I tell you that Chris Vatalaro is a session player, with credits on releases by Antibalas and Mark Ronson, among others, and that Leo Abrahams co-wrote music for Underworld frontman Karl Hyde and Brian Eno’s High Life, on which he also played, after co-producing Hyde’s solo album Edgeland, then the 18 often jagged and sonically raw improvised pieces on Amoral Avatar might not be what you’d expect.
Abrahams is a guitarist who makes good use of effects and pitch-tracking devices. He started out as lead guitarist in Imogen Heap’s tour band, but now has five albums of ambient solo guitar music to his name. Vatalaro is a drummer who augments his kit with found objects, contact mics and electronics, and he’s a member of Sam Amidon’s group, cf. the excellent Lily-O, featuring Bill Frisell.
The duo paired up for a tour of southern Siberia in 2014, videos of which evidence a sort of un-American Americana that has much in common with Trestle Records label mates such as TOUT, but which bears little relation to anything on this album.
The self-descriptive “AA 01” starts abruptly, a mid flow cut-in, and there’s a lot of obfusc noise, including what I might once’ve taken for (and may be) tape hiss, surrounding clean, reverb’d ripples of electric guitar. Then a thumping part-processed beat kicks in, and then, after just a couple of minutes, it stops as abruptly as it began, and the glitch ambience of “AA 02” takes its place for all of a minute and 46 seconds, before that, too, is rudely brushed aside by the gnarly workshop riff and rhythm clatter of “AA 03” (imagine the demos for a Tom Waits collaboration with King Crimson circa Thrak) – and so it goes.
Amoral Avatar was studio-recorded in just one day, and its 18 improvised pieces, of which only four run longer than three minutes (“AA 07”, at 04:17, is the longest), were presumably cut-and-spliced from longer takes. (Abrahams has made a video for each, using material found on the internet, which you can stream at chrisvatalaro.com.)
Thankfully the album does settle stylistically, after that discombobulating opening sequence. “AA 04” and “AA 05” are both uplifting mid tempo cuts with some of post-goth pop music’s epic rhythmic and melodic accessibility. They sound fully fleshed out, not fragmentary.
Then there’s the muzzy, enigmatic ambience of “AA 06”, and the measured sensitivity of “AA 07”; the cyborg rhythm and thrum of “AA 08” and the suppressed tensions of lowering drone and processed brushed skins of “AA 09”. Each piece or brace of pieces carves out its own mood.
Eno has certainly exerted his influence: “AA 10” nods to Remain in Light’s abstractions of African polyrhythm; but the whistling and prepared strings of “AA 11” and the Aeolian chimes of “AA 12” are more uniquely experimental.
The driving post-rock of “AA 13” heralds another iterative mood swing, and there are five more still ahead.
Abrahams and Vatalaro somehow pull all their divergent moods together. They evidently have ideas to spare, and a shared sensitivity, and their album produces its own coherence. It hangs together well, both taken ‘as is’, and as an index of possibilities, though if they treated these pieces as references for further ‘development’ they’d undoubtedly lose something.
Leo Abrahams guitar, electronics; Chris Vatalaro drum kit with found objects, contact microphones, electronics.
Buy Amoral Avatar direct from Trestle Records.