Boomkat Product Review:
After marinading in the archive for decades, Mats Gustafsson unleashes a definitive solo statement of smouldering contrabass improv recorded in a Gothenburg church during the witching hours. Highly recommended skronk madness, tipped if yr into Bendik Giske, Colin Stetson, Matana Roberts, Henri Chopin.
Originally intended for release with Table of the Elements (RIP), Mats’ ‘Contra Songs’ now yield a rare solo spotlight on the free-jazz legend found absolutely in his element, communing with the spirits. Playing against, and with, the cold, hard, stone and wood surfaces and vaulted reverbs of the space, Mats recorded some six hours of improv to DAT, tube amps, and two AKG 414 mics in “an extreme stereo set-up, close to the horn” of his monstrous, unwieldy brass instrument - prized for its ability to reach low end frequencies that others simply don’t touch. What came out sounds like a chimeric elk-man speaking to the moon in an ancient language, venturing an astonishing grammar of bestial bleats, shredded honk and percussive thwack best comprehended on the most primal levels.
If you're expecting an album of raucous free sax squeaking and ear-splitting runs, "Contra Songs" is gonna surprise you. Using a lux Tubax contrabass sax, Gustafsson sounds as if he's conducting a ritual, emphasizing his mastery of the instrument without any needless trickery. Opener 'Song for the Darkest Eye and Ear' might be the set's most abrupt, cutting thru the air with noisy blasts, wordless cries and dextrous taps. Over its seven minute duration, Gustafsson moves us from skronky freedom into gospel-like reverence, arriving on humming bass tones and fluctuating breaths by the track's final third. From here, "Contra Songs" sounds as if Gustafsson has slipped into an almost meditative space, mutating his amplified heavy breathing and staccato dinks on 'Song for Foreign Air' into cracking, rhythmic pops that echo through the Swedish church's hall.
The album's longest track 'Song for the Night' is gassy and percussive, sounding like Bendik Giske's rigorous rhythmic horn waves without the melodic element. Gustafsson instead lets the physicality and depth of the sounds themselves root the music, and it sounds like a gurgling organic alternative to oscillator-driven DIY tape noise, stripped down to preserve the sanctity of the sound itself. There are moments that dial Gustafsson's action down to a gesture - it feels as if he's communicating with an audience we can't completely perceive, and that gives the music a level of animation and tension that keeps you gripped throughout. At times, his technique shapes the contrabass into rubber-band pings that ring out through the church; on 'Song for the Canned Emptiness Inside' these bassy stings anchor the track with an almost "Assault on Precinct 13" level of cinematic moodiness. And on closing track 'Contra Song' they evolve into clicking cacophony, slapping back and reverberating, sounding breathy, metallic and slippery.
'Contra Songs' is a challenging listening experience but a rewarding one, deploying detailed music that demands focus, but not exactly the kind of free jazz tome that requires years of training to appreciate. Gustafsson's genius lies in his respect for the church's acoustic properties and the opulent resonance of his instrument.