Those familiar with bassist and composer Trevor Dunn’s work—with metal avant-gardists Mr. Bungle; the experimental, thematic chaos of Fantomas and unhinged eclecticism of Trey Spruance-led Secret Chiefs 3—may know what to expect when it comes to his avant-jazz side-project, the Trio-Convulsant. Originally with Adam Levy and Kenny Wollesen, the trio released their first record, Debutantes & Centipedes in 1998, an incendiary mix of surrealist jazz and discordant guitars. They followed this up in 2004 with Sister Owl Fish, a somewhat more fine-tuned and metallic restatement of their sound. The line-up on this release, with Mary Halvorson on guitar and Ches Smith behind the drums, remains the same now, eighteen years later, with their newest offering, Séances.
The Trio-Convulsant have always been rooted in free-improv, and while this is undoubtedly still at the heart of Séances, these elements of impulse and spontaneity appear to present themselves as vignettes within an overarching and semi-rigid framework; and through this more structured approach, the descents into inter-instrumental chaos are if anything given a greater platform.
According to Dunn, his research into the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, a group of 18th century French Christian pilgrims who practiced convulsive displays of worship, was an influence on Séances, the themes of mass hysteria and ecstatic piety becoming a kind of conceptual foundation for the album’s musical principles, and one can feel in these compositions a constant search for catharsis and divinity. The ghosts of prog have found a haunt in the pieces here as well: pastoral reed sections reminiscent of Gentle Giant; the occasional sub-metallic asymmetry characteristic of King Crimson’s later studio efforts.
Havolson’s guitars are put to less brash use than on Sister Owl Fish, her exotic chords, FX-play and snakes-and-ladders jazz scale noodling sailing over the rhythm section and criss-crossing through the other string accompaniments; Dunn, when not providing a loose yet unwavering rhythmic bedrock, also loses himself to more virtuosic moments. Free-form music is one of those strange disciplines that, depending on the listener, affords different experiences; serves different purposes: to those who are fully engaged—treasure-hunting for recurring themes and motifs—and to those detached, letting the experience wash over them.
Despite the invocations of the ambitious jazz fusion records of the early 1970s, to call Séances fusion or prog would be a simplification; to call it free-form jazz could, by its nature, be a presumption; to call it a meticulous series of disarrangements at the hands of three seasoned musicians, presented through a lens of chaos and delirium, might be more than one needs to know in order to enjoy this record—whether hanging on every note, or letting themselves fall easy prey to the sorcery of sonic disorder.
Séances is out now on Pyroclastic Records and can be purchased here.
Words: Rory Hughes