Konk Pack

The Black Hills
GROB 962 LC 10292

Heading towards their 15th anniversary in 2012, the German-British trio Konk Pack continues to be the gold standard against which any band of electro-acoustic improvisers must be measured.

Characterized by a unity in conception and creation the tracks on this exceptional CD were actually recorded in both Houston and Wuppertal, Germany about a year apart. That they flow together so seamlessly can be attributed to the skill and technical smarts of the band members consisting of German analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, plus, from the United Kingdom, percussionist Roger Turner and Tim Hodgkinson on lap steel guitar, electronics and clarinets.

Although still identified with the avant-rock band Henry Cow from his career beginnings, Hodgkinson’s musical situations since then have ranged from collaborations the Hyperion Ensemble founded by Romanian spectral composer Iancu Dumitrescu to Free Improvisation with the likes of Scottish drummer Ken Hyder and American multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine. Turner too flirted with rock, but is best-known for collaborations with top improvisers such as British vocalist Phil Minton, German trumpeter Birgit Ulher and American bassist/synthesizer player Alan Silva. Lehn started out as a jazz pianist, but has since adopting the synthesizer as his instrument has expressed his unique strategies with musicians ranging from Australian violinist Jon Rose and Austrian pianist Hannes Löschel to British saxophonist John Butcher.

“The Trees” is Konk Pack’s nearly 25 minute magnum opus here, which due to the performers’ skills allows you to almost sonically experience the tonality which is the forest, and individual improvisations, which are the trees. Watchwords here are harsh, ratcheting and unyielding, as they would be in any endeavor involving wood. Yet the three manage to maintain some sensation of rustic copse along with the louder sawmill-style mechanism. As Lehn’s static loops and buzzes underneath, Hodgkinson’s distorted guitar reverb and singular plinks slink alongside Turner’s pitter-pattering and bell chafing. Despite an upsurge in tones issuing from the two electronic instruments, which resemble both spluttering voltage plus the manual winding of a clock, the percussionist creates enough space top hear the ping of a single wire brush on a cymbal and drum top smacks before his textures are subsumed under monotone buzzing from the synth and ferocious hand hammering on laptop guitar strings.

While the guitar lines are fortissimo and atonal, paradoxically Hodgkinson’s output consists of slurred fingering and crunchy frails matched by conveyer-belt whaps and processed loops from Lehn. Eventually though after a pause, as Turner’s hollow rebounds, cymbal shakes and chain rattles assert themselves, the dual nature of the improvisation becomes apparent. Paradiddles and slaps become as necessary for chromatic motion as scratches against unyielding objects and watery twists.

This electro-acoustic balance is also apparent throughout the rest of the CD, with each player affirming his basic human-ness no matter how mechanized the sounds appear. Thus “Saturn Bar” for instance has many aleatoric cymbal ruffs and guitar twangs filling spaces left by electronically impelled ray gun-like vibrations, church organ-like keyboard interface and signal processed whistles.

With other pressing musical situations looming to occupy the time of trio members, a Konk Pack CD and/or live performance becomes that much more precious. Listening to The Black Hills goes a long way towards explaining why.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. The Welcome 2. Saturn Bar 3. The Grave 4. The Breakfast 5. Roof Party 6. The Trees 7. Gin Run

Personnel: Tim Hodgkinson (lap steel guitar, electronics and clarinets); Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer) and Roger Turner (drums and percussion)