If you’ve heard of Nels Cline, chances are you know him as the guy whose frenzied fretwork is reinvigorating Wilco’s live show. And maybe it’s safer that way – unless your parents played you free jazz in the womb, about ninety percent of Cline’s voluminous back catalogue will seem totally impenetrable. But if you ever wonder what that awesome guitar solo at the end of the live version of “Muzzle of Bees” would sound like if it weren’t tethered to Jeff Tweedy’s chord changes (or any chord changes, really), then look no further than Immolation/Immersion, a fifty-five-minute slab of molten free improvisation featuring Cline, alto saxophonist Wally Shoup (a Thurston Moore collaborator), and drumming wünderkind Chris Corsano (Six Organs of Admittance). It’s a typical release for all three contributors, but the white-hot sparks fly like they’re letting loose for the first time.
Opener “Lake of Fire Memories” is a two-and-a-half-minute sunburst of unrestrained violence. Shoup’s sax squeals and honks in the high register like a startled elephant while Cline slices off his calluses in prickly, spitfire counterpoint. After thirty seconds the Corsano bomb detonates, and the rest of the track is shrapnel and mangled bodies. In its own counterintuitive way, “Lake of Fire Memories” is the most accessible piece on the album – though music doesn’t get any less hinged than this, you don’t need a beret or goatee to appreciate its assaultive energy.
Immolation/Immersion isn’t all undifferentiated aggression. “Minus Mint” could almost be a ballad, with Cline laying down a bed of creaky effects and long, bent chords for Shoup’s breathy tone to flutter over. Corsano’s light brushwork and tom patters quietly accent the track, as subtle as his work elsewhere is propulsive. But these guys are at their best when they have enough space to spin their various approaches into collective, improvised narratives. The twenty-eight-minute title track starts off with skittish free-bop runs from all three musicians, eventually morphing into a spacious, ambient voyage as Corsano takes a violin bow to his cymbals and Cline’s effects pedals split and refract his guitar signals into deep space. After a long, tension-building stretch of rumbling drums and guitar static, the fire-breathing coda feels both justified and necessary.
Like most free improv, the music on Immolation/Immersion dispenses with any unified sense of melody, harmony and rhythm and instead uses dynamics, timbre and the close interaction of the musicians as its building blocks. If you’ve never heard anything like it, then appreciating the record will take a sea change in the way you listen to music – consider Immolation/Immersion your baptism by fire.
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