November 18, 2013
Steamboat Switzerland Extended
D.B. Waves 001
Trost TR 117
Belying the bucolic and pacific reputation of their country are the members of the Steamboat Switzerland (SS) trio, which has been punching out thick and powerful energy music since 1995. Consisting of drummer Lucas Niggli, organist Dominik Blum and electric bassist Marino Pliakas, the band has staked out a unique territory – maybe idiosyncratically Swiss after all – which takes in elements of Metal and Art Rock, plus notated music experiments with percussion and electric instruments and sutures them to Free Music improvisation.
Alone or expanded with a horn section, SS’s most recent discs are based around notated material. The seven tracks on Zeitschrei were all composed by Swiss drummer Michael Wertmuller, now a Berlin resident, and who plays in the Full Blast trio with Pliakas and German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Sederunt Principes on the other hands is a compositional hodge podge. On it SS interprets pieces by contemporary Swiss composers Marc Kilchenmann and Stephan Wittwer, early Swiss dodecaphonist Hermann Meier, (1906-2002) and medieval polyphonic composer Perotinus Magnus (1160-1220), backed at points by an eight-piece brass and reed section.
Considering that both Pliakas and Blum have New music background and leanings, with Blum having recorded Meier’s work for solo piano in 2000, it’s up to Niggli to keep the proceedings from becoming too precious and pretentious. Bearing in mind that his playing situations over the years have included membership in quasi-ethnic drum ensembles, bassist Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra and trio, plus a Jazz-Rock trio with guitarist Elliott Sharp, he rises to the occasion(s). On both the lengthy Sederunt Principes and the briefer Zeitschrei he brings an unhackneyed mixture of Jazz-like convulsive emphasis and crunching Rock music-affiliated power to the performances.
Still, the other danger in this intense tripartite attack is that of sonic overkill. In truth there are sequences during the Wertmuller selections that the pseudo Metal-Psychedelic interface of jittery organ washes, rat-tat-tat drumming and sluicing bass runs brings to the fore memories of colossal song stretching by keyboard-centred bands of the1960s like Brian Augur’s or The Nice. Luckily Steamboat Switzerland has a lot more to offer than wholesale bravado.
For instance, Blum’s organ glissandi can source textures that closely resemble church organ tones or the entire spectrum of dual keyboard rhythms. Suspending the theme to attain a crescendo of swelling rebounds, as he does on “Zeitschrei #I”, the keyboardist’s playing is also sophisticated enough to maintain a linear interface as the bassist and drummer churn the rhythm with downward twangs and slip-sliding pops. At the same time while Blum’s overall approach is definitely more ecclesiastical-oriented than bluesy or funky, his fat and sassy tremolo actions possess enough raw power to intuitively interpret Wertmueller’s busy and densely written scores. “Zeitschrei #3” for example gets most of its ambulatory authority from the savvy contrast between sections that appear to relate to Bach-like harmonies and polyphonic runs that could have arrived holus bolus from a Young Rascals single circa 1965. Cannily dissolving the tension like gradually releasing air from a balloon, Blum does so in a series of false climaxes, seconded by Niggli’s door-knocking accents. Earlier, when the narrative is being defined, the two maximize the organ-drums rhythm but in a strict fashion, with many off beats but no back beat.
Multiple composers’ ideas present more of a challenge on the other disc. However to the trio members’ credit or detriment, except for the horn section contributions, the treatments they bring to these performances are virtually identical. Outside of a vague sacred music cast to the exposition and an almost processional ending, for instance, Magnus’ 12th Century title track doesn’t inhabit a sonic space much different than any one of the 20th or 21st Century scores. As a matter of fact Blum’s jittery chromatic expression, Pliakas’ twanging distortions plus Niggli’s bongo-like tapping on Kilchenmann’s “Egregoros” could fit seamlessly inside the medieval composition.
When the same piece is given a full-blown 11-person treatment at four times its length, these sonic similarities continue but added are sequences and emphasis which put the performance into the range of modern, so-called classical music. The spatial and staccato fissures stressed through pauses plus cymbal whacks and drum cracks, repeated fuzzy electric bass motifs and consistent keyboard vibrations blend with additional colors from the horns, which are likely through-composed. In essence the massed horn choruses mirror those from the organ while it’s up to Niggli’s super-speedy drumming and tambourine shakes plus thick, descending strums from Pliakas to provide a contrast and mid-point crescendo. Following that sequence, an airier, double-gaited narrative appears, with the organ slides preserving the theme as the drummer’s inventive rhythms and lowing horns comment on the exposition. Finally drum thumps provide the performance climax.
Alone or with reed and brass aid Steamboat Switzerland defines its own place in the musical firmament. But if the band is going to keep evolving and producing satisfying music like what’s on these disks, it must continue to maintain the delicate balance among its influences.
Track Listing: Zeitschrei: 1. Häuser.X 2. Zeitschrei #I 3 Zeitschrei #II 4 Zeitschrei #III 5. Z.rat I 6. Z.rat III 7. Z.rat V
Personnel: Zeitschrei: Dominik Blum: (Hammond C3 organ); Marino Pliakas (eletric bass) and Lucas Niggli (drums)
Track Listing: Sederunt 1, Choros [including “Renaissa-Slosh”] 2. Plan 1976 3. Egregoros trio 4. Sederunt Principes 5. Egregoros trio & 8 Winds
Personnel: Sederunt: Nenad Markovic and Matthias Spillmann (trumpet); Dirk Amrein and Patrick Crossland (trombone); Donna und Ernesto Molinari (clarinet); Raphael Camenisch and Phillip Stäudlin (saxophones); Dominik Blum: (Hammond C3 organ); Marino Pliakas (eletric bass) and Lucas Niggli (drums)