Ben Vida joins forces with NYC piano and percussion outfit Yarn/Wire and soprano Nina Dante for an album that’s bewilderingly and brilliantly unexpected, yielding a set of gently trippy chamber-songs that remind us of Robert Ashley’s groundbreaking manipulation of the form crossed with a kind of slowcore jazz.
Structured around pristine piano, percussion and voice, ‘The Beat My Head Hit' is something completely different from Vida- and we mean completely. The Yarn/Wire ensemble, founded in 2005, had already collaborated with a litany of experimental notables over the years, including Sarah Hennies, Annea Lockwood, Catherine Lamb, and Alvin Lucier, but with Vida they essentially formed a proper band, pulling in Nina Dante as an important final piece of the puzzle. The album’s 5 songs - some of them extending to over 10 minutes in length - centre around an unusual arrangement for four voices - Laura Barger, Russell Greenberg, Dante and Vida, together forming a sort of "meta-voice” that took countless runs to perfect. Essentially spoken/sung in synchronised fashion, the quartet create a tripped out, almost phased effect that takes a while to fully clock and which lends the album its unique pacing.
The instrumentation is almost completely unguarded and vulnerable, never vividly electronic but using the language of electronic music to inform each piece. 'Who's Haunting Who Here' starts as it means to go on, matching the four voices in half-sung, run-on phrases that defy conventional logic. Berger's slow, incisive piano plays rhythm at first, lightly fraying at the edges to match the vocal meter without breaking the mood. The tempo and breathwork is just as important as their words, sharp and free-flowing, sliced apart by sighs and sibilant smacks - every word enunciated slowly, in high definition.
Cycling, phasing rhymes introduce us to 'Rhythmed Events', accompanied by softly staccato piano notes and delicate metallophone hits - the piece grows like a wild cherry tree, with pink-hued branches snaking from firm stylistic roots. On 'Drawn Evening', the vocals are silent for a spell, while soft tones give way to Berger's tidal piano. When voices do eventually emerge, they sound striking in a different way - almost operatic, but the kind of progressive, transgressive opera that burst out of NYC's downtown in the 1970s and '80s.
Booming bass tones throb next to the vocals on the title track, providing a solid backbone for peculiar rhythmelodic assertions. At the mid-point, it cuts to an unexpected silence, before a stifled drone ushers us out in placid, measured euphoria. The album's gorgeous finale 'Still Point' is the ensemble’s most unashamedly moving moment and an opportunity for Vida to apply his experimental techniques to more melodramatic material. At times, it sounds like Bang on a Can re-interpreting the music of Mount Eerie - there's an understanding of American songcraft that's often ignored in the weeds of the avant-garde, here balanced by a studied classical minimalism that underpins each note. If you squint, you might just be able to make out the scratchy images of Low, or Codeine, or any of the slowcore set in the distance - but seen through a lens etched with the initials of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or Meredith Monk.
Needless to say, it's a trip.