Earlier this year I talked a bit about about Anna Meredith’s move from the classical scene to the world of electronica. Nowadays this sort of crossovers are not that uncommon anymore. Naturally avant-garde rock band Deerhoof could not hang back with this hype going on and melted together with the classical outfit of Ensemble Dal Niente to chip in. And oh man, it’s exciting!
I reckon Deerhoof does not need an in depth introduction here because since 1994 this band has been steadily releasing albums that veer between the style of punk, noise and avant-garde. Ensemble Dal Niente’s story is evidently lesser known to the wider audience. Dal Niente was erected in 2005 by a group of graduate student composers from Northwestern University. Gradually they made a name for themselves in the classical scene but really appeared on the map after teaming up with another Northwestern alumnus, Marcos Balter and Deerhoof’s drummer/composer, Greg Saunier in 2012. At first they created the versatile ‘Deerhoof Chamber Variations’ but also agreed to start a four-year-long project together that eventually resulted in the album that now lies before us.
Balter and Saunier serve as the album’s mains composers and so to speak also conduct Dal Niente. Of course both gentleman can’t conduct the ensemble at the same time so they decided to each take a half of the album’s playing time to set out their compositions. The first half comes from the hand of Balter as he drops a woolly yet also sharp edged seven pieced suite called ‘Meltdown Upshot’ whilst the other half is reserved for Saunier’s rearranged version of ‘Deerhoof Chamber Variations’.
‘Meltdown Upshot’ is a 23 minutes long ever-morphing piece of music that starts out from small beginnings, grows tall in various quirky pulses only to narrow down and works it’s way up again. Balter gloriously succeeds to find a place between minimalist classic music and light prog-rock without giving his style a solid form. After 6 minutes of free flowing strings, piano and the dreamy vocals of Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzak on ‘Credo’ and ‘Parallel Spaces’, the suite really takes off on the third installment ‘Ready’. Here Balter forces Dal Niente to merge together a variety of short bursts of double bass, horns and strings which is further infused with a curt watery guitar and fast swirling vocals. Hereafter the ensemble frantically brings the suite to the midpiece with diligent piano, violin, harp and drumming sections. As said the piece keeps morphing, now by toning down a bit but with a the sole purpose to build up to a new high. Art rock as we know from Deerhoof eventually takes the foreground here, leaving behind the strings and reaches an avant-gardish climax on the suites closer ‘Rapture’.
Meltdown Upshot’ is an adventure within an adventure because after the freestanding but binding eerie neoclassical track, ‘Pois que nada que dure, ou que durando’, the album proceeds with Saunier at the helm. In 20 minutes Dal Niente interweaves fragments of work Saunier originally wrote for Deerhoof. Because the fragments of music and the wordless vocals are in a single track yet not seem to be in the right order ‘Deerhoof Chamber Variations’ can be perceived as very abstract. However the frisk piano play and cheerful strings of Janet Sung just as easily could be a part of feel good scene from a Wes Anderson movie. With this Saunier nicely enough creates an interesting paradox in which abstractionism and light-heartedness unpredictably go hand in hand.
Your hopes will be deceived if you were expecting a genre crossing experiment with Saunier (in the name of Deerhoof) calling the shots. If so, or you’re really not into contemporary classical music, you’d better stick around on the indie side of things. Luckily Deerhoof took this in account and released a new studio album earlier this year, so check out that one instead.
Marcos Balter and Greg Saunier each play a separate role on paper but in practice sound as one. Of course members of Deerhoof and especially Dal Niente are to thank for this. With them in their midst Balter and Saunier build a whole new bridge between contemporary classics and avant-garde. An overall a stunning achievement of which I hope there is more to come in the near future.
Label: New Amsterdam, 2016
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 1, Credo (4:49)
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 2, Parallel Spaces (2.34)
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 3, Ready (3:19)
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 4, True/False (1:50)
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 5, Home (3:51)
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 6, Cherubim (2.42)
- Meltdown Upshot: No. 6, Rapture (4:26)
- Pois que nada que dure, ou que durando (4:52)
- Deerhoof Chamber Variations (20:40)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 190916