Steamboat Switzerland

Zone 2
GROB 859

Emulsifying, burbling and reverberating, the electronics-intensified textures which make up the majority of Zone 2’s nearly-46-minutes of sound put Steamboat Switzerland fully in the locus of trance-improv. However the depth of this Swiss trio’s interpretation is that the trance trapping take second place to necessary textural and improvisational elements.

That’s because like the members of other notable bands involved in this sort of intense music-making, such as efzeg, The Necks or Trapist, this group – which has been together since 1995 – is only one part of the Steamboaters’ individual identities.

One of Europe’s busiest drummers, Lucas Niggli also leads Zoom, his own more jazz-oriented band; an all-percussion ensemble; is in a trio with pianist Jacques Demierre and bassist Barry Guy; plus pinch-hits in Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Pianist and electronic manipulator Dominik Blum plays a wide variety of contemporary, jazz and more groove-oriented sounds; while Marino Pliakas, a dual Greek and Swiss citizen, who here plays acoustic guitar and electronics, is the electric bassist in one of German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s many groups.

Not that there are many traces of Brötzmann’s vein-bursting intensity on this session. However there are passages where the pianist references the sort of contemporary New music to which Guy’s ensembles have long added an improvised component. Sometimes Steamboat’s references go even further back, with Zone 2 commencing with high-frequency, Rachmaninoff-like chording from Blum, that soon redefines itself as criss-crossing, almost abstract piano patterning.

Setting up the theme with staccato cadenzas and repeated runs, the keyboardist adumbrates a further highly rhythmic section that appears later on, while Niggli adds stick pops, drum rolls and cymbal cracks to the mix. Eventually circling into a crescendo of allegro, double-timing, the two make space for Pliakas’ finger-picked guitar licks and string-snapping arpeggios, with the underpinning extended with the pianist’s walking bass line. Unsatisfied with limiting themselves to a relentless rhythmic function, the three then turn to polyrhythms. The percussionist adds tam-tam, sound-tree and rim-shot concussions, while both chordal instruments use electronics to amplify agitato soundboard pulses.

As the kinetic thundering abates with stopped echoes from internal piano strings and light pressures on drum tops, a complementary, folksy fantasia is birthed, further soothing the tempo. Voltage flutters, plus the blurry hums of unconnected electronics stake out the modernist stance; while drum sticks skimming across cymbals, and ticking vamps from the guitar provide the primeval contrast. Finally, determinedly placed single keyboard notes plus a rebound from the drum tops push the aviary-like electronic pressures into stasis.

Lacking a conclusive finale weakens the improv the same way an unresolved ending can diminish an overly literary short story. Still Zone 2 provides enough example of highly proficient musicality that, like those who appreciate the singular crafting of a short story despite its inconclusive resolution, cerebral listeners will have a similar sonic appetite for this CD.

—Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: 1. Steamboat Switzerland

Personnel: Dominik Blum (piano and electronics); Marino Pliakas (acoustic guitar and electronics) and Lucas Niggli (drums and percussion)