While live music is only just starting to peep out from under the pandemic blanket, it seems the past half year has seen the release of a plethora of new recordings spanning genres, time and place. Covering all three bases is the recent, and seemingly unexpected, release of a 15-year-old collaboration between bassist Clayton Thomas (NOW now founder) and pianist Chris Abrahams, most well-known for his work in The Necks. Given the weird times we are living in, the middle of a pandemic might just be the ideal time to release something previously unheard, straight out of the vault.
Having performed and improvised together in various groupings over the past twenty years, this offering is Thomas and Abrahams recording as a duo named Truncador. Entitled ‘Strong Arm’, this eleven track, self-described song cycle was recorded over several months in 2005. In an almost purist fashion, the recording features each of the musicians on a single synthesiser for the duration of the album, a most unusual and almost territorial arrangement. The organisational symmetry evidenced by this strict instrument allocation also plays out in the curated track lengths – all of them 5:02 or 5:03.
Reflecting on the ‘form’ of the album – although worlds away from Mendelssohn’s early Romantic piano works – ‘Strong Arm’ extends the spirit of the Lieder ohne Worte – where without the human voice or words, the expression of the indefinite and the definite find new opportunities to play with and against each other. The dualistic aspects of the recording are hard to escape by this point.
Opening the album is the appropriately named ‘Overture’, with long, slow moving tones washing beneath creaking, whirring, static – a machine woken from a long sleep. By the beginning of track 2 ‘Truncador Romances’, the tempo has picked up considerably, noting that this is not an album with any conventional beats to speak of. Repeated intervals and burbling, trilling sounds punctuate the air instead, setting the groundwork for the textures and soundspaces that arise in various forms across the remaining tracks. As the album moves through its ‘cycle’ with filmic titles to boot, the offsetting of small motifs against drawn-out drones, overlaid with digital chatter and analogue synthesiser melismas, establishes a series of musical procedures that bring an oblique unity to the recording.
With churning tracks like ‘Truncador creates a human helicopter’, however, one does wonder whether this is a song cycle best performed (and perhaps recorded) live – that the spontaneity and opportunity of the live environment would afford a wider berth, more room in which these sounds could play. With both Thomas and Abrahams being consummate improvisers, its not much of a stretch to consider what a live performance might reveal. Certainly the ‘squareness’ of the production would be lost, bringing benefit to the tracks by enlivening the patterns and mutations, and thereby dissolving the ‘ever-so-slightly dated’ feel of the recording.
But then again…. maybe this album was meant to stay unreleased for a decade and a half, freed into the post-Covid world as a necessarily dark meditation. Or maybe the Truncador had simply slept long enough and waking was now the only option. Either way, this is an intriguing album from two of Sydney’s most significant experimental and improvisatory musicians, and time has captured them well.