The Laughing Owl
Atavistic ALP 129 CD

Invention Box
Atavistic ALP 127CD

Rock musicians trying to turn out what they conceive of as improvised music often run into an insurmountable problem. They're so used to working with a heavy consistent beat and regular rhythms that they shoehorn those attributes into what they think are freer numbers.

Moreover, accustomed to making their points with vocals, the instrumental sounds they produce are often unnecessarily bland. It's as if lacking words to hide behind, they don't want to upset anyone with non-vocal music.

With the right prodding and mind frame. a minority is able to ignore these strictures and come up with a fairly respectable product. These two CDs provide a how-to and a how-not-to object lessons in rock musician transformation.

Starting off with the better release, LAUGHING OWL is an unpretentious and unprepossessing set of duets between Terri Ex, lead guitarist for Dutch anarcho punk rockers, The Ex, and Han Bennink, the colorful drummer most associated with improvised music in Holland.

Sounding exactly as what it is: a couple of guys getting together to bounce ideas off one another, the session works surprisingly well. Since Bennink never met a polyrhythm he didn't want to play with or a surface off which he wasn't inclined to bounce his sticks, the drum portion is as fluid and ever-fluctuating as he would play with the ICP Orchestra.

Ex is no slouch either. Eschewing rock star prerogative, he uses the guitar's six strings, amp and volume pedal as his kit, attempting to produce as many different tones as possible to complement, amplify or spur the drummer's sound. On "Skots & skeef", for instance he tries out some country blues licks, while "Tzwet & Tkalf" has those long, shimmering guitar lines that could have fit in a standard rock tune. Meanwhile, "Knijt" finds him concentrating on the bass strings with Bennink backing him with little cymbals smacks the same way he would an upright bass player. There's even a point where the two sound as if they're going to launch into an offcentre version of "Wipe Out" but think better of it. While no masterpiece, the CD is modest in its goals and succeeds in every way.

INVENTION BOX is another matter altogether.

Binary System is the brainchild of keyboardist Roger C. Smith, a former member of rock bands Mission of Burma and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, who from his base in Quincy, Mass now composes soundtracks for commercials, documentaries and children's programs. The other full time member is drummer Larry Dersch, with other musicians added here on different oddball instruments.

Miller plays acoustic, electric, prepared and toy pianos, electric guitar, corner, electric piano and organ, and utilizes the whole trick bag of studio techniques and mixes which, according to his official biography have "made him a favorite with many animation houses."

The end result sounds exactly how you would imagine a CD by a former rocker who now does commercial scoring would sound: a high-gloss "outside" soundtrack for the self-consciously hip. For a start, Dersch may vary his percussion patterns, but never stops relentlessly sledgehammering the beat.

Auteur Miller can produce — in every sense of the word — tones from his varied instruments that sound at times like minor classical études, hotel lounge cocktail piano and garage rock. But bludgeoned by that omnipresent beat the result usually resolves itself as excessive keyboard-heavy ProgRock, sort of like the work of Rick Wakeman with pretension. "The Sound Of Music, Today" adds a jokey, post modern vocal, but that comes across as more gimmick than experiment.

Only on the last track, subtitled "out of the invention box" does the session relax into a sort of quiet sub-sub-sub British style improv. But by then it's too late.

Two musicians are featured on each of these CDs. One pair got together in a simple studio to express themselves and have some fun; the others operated the most modern studio equipment in an attempt to prove the importance of one man's music.

You can choose between either, but for most people the choice will be clear.

— Ken Waxman

Owl: Track Listing: 1. Kieft 2. Demp 3. Buns 4. Kluft 5. Het spook ende kaas 6. Knijt 7. Tzwet & Tkalf 8. Twototango 9. Tak 10. Song of the slender moa 11. Fik 12. The laughing owl 13. Skots & skeef 14. Zeepijn 15. Dug 16. Glenfloÿ 17. Taailing

Owl: Personnel: Terri Ex (guitar); Han Bennink (drums)

Box: Track Listing: 1. The Sound Of Music, Today 2. Rogue Wave 3. The Initial Orbit 4. Spiral 5. Third Door on the Left 6. Trimorphic Hybrid 7. Metamorphocles 8. Two Blue Torpedoes 9. Texas

Box: Personnel: Roger C. Miller (acoustic, electric prepared and toy pianos, electric guitar, corner, organ); Larry Dersch (drums, wind machine, metals, percussion) plus Liz Tonne (vocals -track 1); Jane Wang (bass - tracks 1,4,6,9)