New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Haunting Music From Happier Times

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.

A Hauntingly Relevant World War I Concept Album From Bare Wire Son

Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz records under the name Bare Wire Son. Whether kinetic or atmospheric, his music has a relentlessly bleak intensity. One obvious comparison is the gloomy, cinematic processionals of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Other dark postrock acts, from Mogwai to Swans come to mind. His latest album Off Black – streaming at Bandcamp – is a World War I song cycle, often utilizing texts from journals by mothers who lost their sons. Janusz is a one-man, lo-fi orchestra here: everything is awash in reverb, vocals often buried deep in these slow but turbulent rivers of sound.

The parallels between the Great War and the lockdown are stunning, making this album all the more relevant. Chemical warfare played a major role: poison gas in 1918, deadly hypodermics 103 years later. Propaganda campaigns of unprecedented proportions are central to both events. The drive to get the British and the US involved in the war was inflamed by stories of hideous atrocities on the part of the “Huns,” as the Germans were rebranded. The ubiquitous, multibillion-dollar ad blitz promoting the needle of death also relies on many fictions, from grotesquely inaccurate computer models, to blood tests rigged to generate false positives.

The album’s opening track, Involuntary is a crescendoing conflagration, possibly a parody of a Catholic hymn, with a cruelly cynical coda. Percussion flails out a sadistic lash beat over the organ textures in Cenotaph, struggling to rise against a merciless march that finally hits a murderous peak.

Janusz assembles Saved Alone around a series of menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs and whispered vocals, shifting from a lulling organ interlude to a roughhewn crescendo. From there he segues into CSD, a brief, portentous, organ-infused tone poem.

Simple, ominous guitar arpeggios linger over an industrial backdrop of cello, percussion and organ in Ends Below: the visceral shock about two thirds of the way in is too good to give away. The Gore is portrayed more minimalistically and enigmatically than you would probably expect, resonant washes of slide guitar and organ behind a crashing guitar loop

Close-harmonied organ textures and cello drift through Antiphon, joined by guitar clangs and slashes in The Bellows and extending through the dissociative flutters and funereal angst of Kampus. Spare, Lynchian guitar figures return in Fingernest, an emphatic, pulsing dirge rising to Comfortably Numb proportions.

Heavy Grey is the closest thing to indie rock here, although it reaches an anthemic vastness at the end. Janusz trudges to the end of the narrative with the hypnotic Red Glass and then a quasi-baroque organ theme cynically titled Voluntary, This is one of the best albums of 2021 and arguably the most haunting one so far.