In typical Tim Berne fashion, this new trio, which features Berne on alto sax, Marc Ducret on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums, makes music that’s close to unlistenable for long stretches, weirdly beautiful for teasingly short intervals, then cruelly pummeling again. Even more so than Berne’s fantastic recent live album, The Sublime And, Big Satan’s Souls Saved Hear is sprawling and, most of the time, a tough slog. This is obviously a methodological decision, though; Thirsty Ear’s press release proudly states that Big Satan has no leader, instead featuring impartial jamming.
Souls Saved Hear is evil-sounding; that makes some sense for a band calling itself Big Satan, but it’s ruggedly inaccessible improvisation is so intense that it comes off as sneering at times. There’s none of the wink-wink “can you handle this?” deconstructionism of other free-noise acts like, say, Half Japanese, DNA or even Cecil Taylor; the majority of Souls Saved Hear is a stone-faced aural heart attack.
The main point of interest here is Berne’s interplay with Ducret. Guitars are a relative rarity in small contemporary jazz trios, and are even more rarely played like Ducret plays his. With mind-blowing dexterity, he hangs right with Berne’s nonstop vamping and free soloing, answering every ante that Berne ups. The soloing is almost constant, making for cacophonous craziness. Moments of any sort of gratuitousness are slim — some lush acoustic Ducret action to open the album, a merciful spacey track in the middle, and an epic Blue Series-style classic to close. Because Souls Saved Hear is almost totally improvisational, specific and unexpected moments within songs stand out: the ominously brutal voice of Berne’s alto coming in over Ducret’s bluesy chords in “Rampe”; the searing Ducret-propelled noise jam that strangles the listener at the start of “Hostility Suite”; a few other moments where something incredible emerges from the headache-producing chaos.
The most notable song is also the most anomalous. “Plantain Surgery” comes out of the Matthew Shipp school of combining jazz instrumentation with heavily produced beats and electronics, and is a real jaw-dropper. Berne opens with Steve Reich-like repetitions that are soon coupled with electronic bleeping and Ducret’s effects-laden guitar, finally climaxing in a huge breakbeat and producer David Torn splicing and cutting Berne and Ducret’s instruments. “Plantain Surgery” isn’t representative of Big Satan’s M.O., but man, what a tease.