ALEX CLINE/KAORU/MIYA MASAOKA /G.E. STINSON

Cloud Plate
Cryptogramophone CG 121

DEREK BAILEY/AMY DENIO/DENNIS PALMER
The Gospel Record
Shaking Ray SRR-CD004

Using the human voice in improvisation can be tricky. Singing words brings with it the fear that metrical qualities will overtake spontaneous interaction; used wordlessly, its proper place among other instruments is suspect and sometimes redundant.

CLOUD PLATE and THE GOSPEL RECORD deal with variations of these snags and neither fully overcomes the obstacles. On the first CD, Kaoru – no last name – so diffuses her vocal timbres through electronics that often you lose track of the human element, especially when she seem to be expressing herself in ethereal tones that are neither Japanese nor English. Conversely, Amy Denio intones the lyrics of the gospel songs on the other session with such bright-eyed conviction, despite the instrumental mayhem behind her, that you’re not sure how much is parody and how much Pentecostal.

One leans towards the former. That’s because Denio, an on again-off again member of the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, usually plays saxophones, accordion and bass, writes film soundtracks and chamber pieces, and has worked with bands like Curlew and The Pale Nudes.

Her associates here are British guitarist Derek Bailey, whose religion is more Free Music than Christianity, and The Shaking Ray Levis (SRL)’ Dennis Palmer, a avant gardist from the American South, who plays rhythmic synthesizer and samples and contributes the odd Carter Family-style harmony vocal. Still Palmer is based in Chattanooga, Tenn., where as a child he used to watch a particular religious program which featured the famous gospel quartet, the Stamps. Furthermore, while the songs may be taken from a hymnal found in a five-and-dime store, gospel music has always had an influence on innovators, with everyone from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and Albert Ayler and Duke Ellington having recorded religious material.

THE GOSPEL RECORD is much more POMO than any of those examples, however. Denio’s timbres may sound more like Dale Evans than ex-rockabilly turned gospel singer Wanda Jackson, but considering her vocals are frequently double tracked, separated into disparate voices, or in the case of “Joshua Led God’s Children” sung in an uncomfortable falsetto, the effects seem a little less than reverent. Also, considering that she vies for aural space on that tune with Palmer’s samples that are mid-way between sousaphone drone and Bronx cheer, it’s not likely that Denio or SRL will ever be heard on evangelical broadcast.

Throughout, Bailey produces amp-shaking distortions in higher pitches, harsh flanged guitar runs and jumbled, oscillating tones that are as mocking as the lyrics are sincere – it’s not likely he’ll be on the gospel train ay time soon either. His eccentric approach to the material combined with Palmer’s instrumental work, which includes signal-clipping in and out of focus, and rumbling, bouncing near-percussive beats, lifts the program instrumentally.

An engaging and wacky trifle, THE GOSPEL RECORD is tongue-in-cheek fun, but at barely 14 minutes, no major statement.

CLOUD PLATE may be envisioned as one though, and that’s part of its predicament. At almost 66½ minutes – with three tracks around the 13 minute mark – the otherworldly, atmospheric timbres sometimes get a bit wan. Contributing to this pallid wash is the instrumentation of the Los Angeles-based musicians.

G.E. Stinson, who co-founded the Jazz/Rock/World Music band Shadowfax, brings guitars and so-called implements to the session. Miya Masaoko who performs traditional Japanese, notated contemporary, performance pieces and improvisations with musicians such as trombonist George Lewis, uses an electric koto to produce miasmic sounds. Only percussionist Alex Cline, who has worked in bands with Stinson as well as reedist Vinny Golia among many others, brings a concentrated rhythmic sensibility to the eight tracks filled with reverberating strings and vocal tones from Kaoru, an ongoing Stinson collaborator.

Using what sounds like a vocoder to turn her voice robotic and synthesized, Kaoru’s contributions often seem barely there, and as if she’s reciting prose rather than singing. With the buzzing of so-called electronic effects and the projection of string drones dominating most tracks, much of her vocalizing is out-of- earshot mumbling. Infantile cries and ethereal tones, often distorted, are heard as well. Periodically it may be that words are part of her disconsolate sounding plaints, but precise language and sense are lost among the musical mists.

These include abrasive reverb, intentional distortion and scratched string runs from Stinson’s guitar, and ricocheting cymbal claps, metallic pings and hollow resonation from Cline’s percussion. When all these sounds, real and sampled, link to the cascade of scrapes and wiggles that characterize Masaoka’s koto turns, the effect is that of skewed gagaku music. Replication or crinkling rice paper is heard on both the first and final tracks, serving as connective tissue for real-time improvisations.

Among the ruffling chords and chromatic picking the most satisfying performance is “Naming”, which clocks in at fewer than three minutes. Yet all the tones stretched to excessive length elsewhere are presented and accounted for here. There are multi-tracked cries, whispers and shouts from the vocalist, bells and gong rattling from the percussionist, singular finger picking from the guitarist and sweeping colors from the kotoist.

“Assisted Collapse” is the other track that makes more of an impression since it’s much livelier than the rest. Mixing slanting arpeggios from Masaoka, ratcheting flams and ringing bell tones from Cline, and an underlying guitar drone which accelerates to fuzz tones and down to finger picking action, the tune logically reaches a climax then dribbles away to silence.

No one is suggesting that CLOUD PLATE could or should have been as condensed as THE GOSPEL RECORD. But briefer tracks and more succinct idea elaboration may have produced a more memorable session.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Gospel: 1.Let The Little Sunshine In 2. Heaven Will Surely Be Worth It All 3. I Miss A Friend Like You 4. The Ole-Time Religion 5. Joshua Led God’s Children 6. I’m Gonna See Heaven 7. I’m Bound Fort Land of Canaan

Personnel: Gospel: Derek Bailey (guitar); Dennis Palmer (voice, synthesizer, samples); Amy Denio (voice)

Track Listing: Cloud: 1. Ions 2. Robot Mudra 3. Mountain 4. Cloud 5. Naming 6. Visual Drift 7. Assisted Collapse 8. Face

Personnel: Cloud: G.E. Stinson (guitars and implements); Miya Masaoka (koto and effects), Alex Cline (percussion); Kaoru (voice, percussion, sound toys and effects)