09 July 2010

CD REVIEW: Trey Gunn - Modulator (2010, 7D Media)

"This recording was composed and produced on top of a single 51 minute live drum solo by Marco Minnemann."

~~~~~From the CD cover

"For this project, alternatively known as "Normalizer Two", Marco has enlisted several different musicians to create a full CD, each, from the same drum solo. No editing of the drum performance was done. All the music had to fit with what Marco played and, ideally, make it seems like only this drum performance could go with this music."
~~~~~From http://www.treygunn.com/modulator/

Now you have the background. Trey Gunn’s Modulator is one of the most interesting releases I’ve heard in a good long time, and it is part of a series of unrelated but interconnected releases as mentioned above. Other musicians who have released a similar album are Alex Machacek (Twenty Four Tales), Mike Keneally (Normalizer 2: Evidence of Humanity) and John Czajkowski of Hectic Watermellon (West ZooOpolis). The subject of this review, however, is Trey Gunn’s own take on this project/concept.

I think that first I need to talk a little about the musicians involved. Trey Gunn is a pretty familiar name to many progressive music fans, having spent 1994-2003 in King Crimson. He’s also recorded with the Robert Fripp String Quintet, TU, Sunday All Over The World, David Sylvian, and countless others. Since departing Crimson in 2003 his releases have been very experimental, stretching the boundaries of his skills and of the forms and structures of rock based music in general. On Modulator he plays just about everything that isn’t a drum, handling guitar, fretless guitar, touch guitar, bass, keyboards, samples, and arrangements. He’s joined on one track by Michael Collolly, who adds uilleann pipes and fiddle to one track.

Then there’s Marco Minnemann.

Over the past 15 years he’s released 18 solo albums and appeared on more albums than one can possibly count. He’s worked with Eddie Jobson, Bryan Beller, death metal band Necrophagist, Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk, George Bellas, Paul Gilbert, and many, many others. His drumming style is built on the high level of limb independence he’s developed over the years, allowing him to perform multiple layers of polyrhythms with the same ease most drummers can handle a 4/4 beat. Musically he’s a freak of nature, and is perhaps one of the most influential drummers on the scene today.

On 27 January 2006 Minnemann laid down a 51-minute, uninterrupted drum solo at a studio in Germany. He then offered the solo out to various musicians to work with as a basis for collaborative projects. As such, one could say that the resulting Trey Gunn project is a stunning example of modern xenochrony, a Zappa term for the lifting of an instrumental track to place in another, unrelated composition. While Zappa did this mostly with guitar solos, often his albums had so much editing that it was possible that a drum bit being heard was played by the drummer in that song, but on a totally different night to the rest of the band. Its an interesting musical exercise, as it can allow for interesting results in the shifting of rhythms and phrasing.

There’s not much one can say about Minnemann’s drumming; it is in a league of its own. I don’t think there’s anyone on the earth that is recording today that can pull off some of the things he does. I admire his skill. I admire the complexity of this work. Being that this is a drum solo, I can’t fault the lack of structure; this was an opportunity for him to blow as hard as he possibly could, and is an excellent example of what the opening of Crimson’s ‘Indiscipline’ was working towards. There are a few moments where a rhythmic pattern is repeated or hearkened back to, but for the most part every moment Minnemann is doing something different with his drumming.

In some ways, this makes Gunn’s work extremely difficult, as he has to try and pull together more structure on his own. I’m not sure he’s always successful, which again isn’t necessarily a fault. His mix of instruments is far more enjoyable than if this had been a strict drum/Warr guitar exercise, but I still find myself waiting for something resembling a phrase I can hook on to and use as a focal point to think about tension building. And ultimately I think that’s what I am missing most…while this is broken up into 22 track markers, it’s not like there are actual separable sections one could lift out and listen to on its own. You’re not going to pop this CD on simply to listen to track 13, ‘Spectra,’ or track 5, ‘Fall Time -/+,’ or what have you (though perhaps we come close with ‘Twisted Pair’ and ‘Hymn,’ which close out the album). This is a piece that demands and expects that the listener is going to set aside 51 minutes, give or take, to listen attentively. That’s a tough thing to ask, not because I don’t think that listeners are incapable of it (let’s face it, someone who listens to Lady GaGa is not going to be buying a Trey Gunn album, no matter what you ask me to believe), but because 51 minutes of what is for all intents free form music is a tough listen for a good bit of the potential audience out there.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t an indictment of the effort, experiment or result at all. I have something similar sitting in my CD collection as we speak, and I remember the hue and cry when a known, name band, one of the big six, decided to release 57 minutes of improv wrapped around the opening and closing of a song. Even though I am a massive fan of King Crimson, I still don’t listen to THRaKaTTaK half as much as I listen to other releases by that band.

Modulator is an impressive effort. Trey Gunn has put himself in a situation where he has to stretch his skills almost beyond his limits, and he acquits himself well. Marco Minnemann shows once again why he’s one of the top rated drummers on the scene today. I just don’t see this album being one I come back to time and time again for relaxed, chill down after work listening. I’m sure that says more about me than it does about the music; after all, Robert Fripp once said that a reviewer reviews himself. I just wouldn’t go into Modulator expecting anything resembling an easy listen, because you’re definitely not going to get it.

Track List:

1. Contact

2. Flood

3. Spray I

4. Fall Time +/-

5. Fall Time -/+

6. Lumen

7. Switch

8. Daughter

9. Pole

10. Scatter

11. Up Spin

12. Down Spin

13. Spectra

14. Superstish-a-tron

15. Californ-a-tron

16. Spray II

17. Mono-Punkte

18. Coupling

19. Incantation

20. Slingcharm

21. Twisted Pair

22. Hymn


Trey Gunn (Guitars, fretless guitars, Touch guitars, basses, keybaords, samples, arrangements)

Michael Connolly (Uilleann pipes, fiddle)

Marco Minnemann (Drums)

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