James Plotkin and Paal Nilssen-Love, ‘Death Rattle’
There’s a small yet rich history in both rock and improvised music of guitar-drum duos, and it might be tough to imagine anyone adding much that’s truly new to the canon. And yet that’s exactly what has happened here – an improvised duo set that defies the odds by offering something energetic, new and absolutely vital to the discourse. From seemingly out of nowhere arrives this blisteringly great duo recording from Plotkin (guitar) and Nilssen-Love (drums, percussion). Plotkin is well known for his work with Khanate and OLD, but in recent years his mastering work has earned him the most attention and business. When Plotkin masters a recording, there’s a mark of quality present that means listeners will be treated to the best quality sonic experience possible.
Plotkin’s ear for sonic detail is remarkable and it shows here in Death Rattle, the astoundingly bright, loud and clear recording with the well-established Norwegian Paal Nilssen-Love. It is one of the most present and alive improv recordings I’ve heard in years, something that should come as no surprise given the pedigree of the players. What is perhaps surprising however, given Plotkin’s usual affinity for darkness, doom, and volume, is the subtlety evidenced in his often non-idiomatic guitar work on this disc. He brilliantly sidesteps the guitarist’s temptation often inherent in duo settings to showcase technical dexterity at the expense of compositional and/or emotional impact. Instead his guitar and its various treatments emerge (looping, pitch-shifting and more) as a textural and rhythmic device capable of tremendous range and expressive impact.
The guitar tone is loud and menacing in spots, but repetitive and machine-like in other moments. The effect is fascinating, particularly when coupled with Nilssen-Love’s masterfully inventive drumming. Both players engage in extended improvisatory workouts (each of the four tracks top ten minutes) that demonstrate equal parts power, creativity and restraint. These are tremendously skilled musicians at the top of their game and it shows.
The palpable use of space and silence throughout creates a tension that yields perfect results. Nilssen-Love is a powerfully heavy hitter, and makes every percussive note count. He plays in a rhythmically free style that is both beautifully complex and yet primitive in its sheer power. While each player gets time to display his unique set of skills, this is no mere experiment in dialogic exchange – instead they both seem hell-bent on working together to create a unified whole that is more than the sum of its twin parts.
The highlights come fast and furious, and it’s almost impossible to pinpoint favorite moments in a record this fantastic. The opening track begins with the most traditional sounding moments of the album, followed by a deep exploration into the sonic maelstrom, with Plotkin leading the way via foggy squalls of feedback and noise while Nilssen-Love moves from abstraction to structure with perfect fluidity and grace. It’s followed by the wonderfully strange “Primateria,” in which higher pitched guitar tones chime forth, splinter away, and ultimately warp through repetition into anguished cries for freedom buoyed by the frantic and inspired cymbal and drum work. “Cock Circus” starts in a much darker place with Plotkin using murky detuned and pitch-shifted guitars to give room for the alternately pulsing and pushing drums to explore new rhythms and ideas. Finally, the closing title track is the sparsest but also possibly the closest to a fully-realized statement of intent. Both musicians exercise incredible restraint here, and use the space it gives them to shape their newly created collaborative language together.
Not a duo for the faint of heart, these two attack their work together with a patience, passion and focus rare in improvised music today. Each second of the recording drips with the marked intensity of two men going full-bore ahead on a mission to discover new and uncompromising juxtapositions in sound. With this easy contender for improvised record of the year, Plotkin and Nilssen-Love have created an undeniable masterpiece that may have also set the bar impossibly high for other contenders.