Best New Music of 2014: St. Francis Duo – Improv (live, 5/19/2014)

Hello and welcome to an annual tradition around here: our month-long list of the year’s best new music! If you’re new, I’m Mark, editor of Extended Play and a contributor to websites like Bearded Gentlemen Music. Every day in December, I’ll run a short review of what I think was one of the best albums of 2014. Today: an audience tape of a one-off performance in Philadelphia!

I always like to include at least one bootleg in these things and this year’s boot is an interesting one! It came to my attention via the indispensable blog Doom and Gloom From the Tomb and right from the get-go I was entranced. But first a little explaining is in order.

The Philadephia-based Ars Nova Workshop is a nonprofit group that helps put on experimental and jazz shows. In the past year alone, they’ve put on shows featuring a sax quartet, Haitian Rail and even a panel discussion on John Coltrane. All sound like the kind of thing I’d love to go if only they had them up here; mostly it’s solo guitar people playing Imagine Dragons covers.

The only show I’ve been able to hear came in the middle of May. For one night, Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble jammed together in front of a crowd at the St. Francis de Sales Auditorium. The names might not be too familiar, but I’m sure you’ll recognize their resumes. Noble has worked with a bunch of jazz musicians, most notably free jazz noisemaker Peter Brötzmann (his LP Machine Gun is the loudest, most punishing jazz record I own and it’s amazing!), while O’Malley’s best known for his work with Sunn O))).

The set was one long performance, with O’Malley on guitar and Noble on drums. It’s all improvised and goes through a few different phases, but generally it’s one big black cloud of doom, a circling mass of distorted guitar, bursts of feedback and drum rolls. Sometimes they play against each other, O’Malley’s guitar echoing and snacking between Noble’s cymbal bursts. Elsewhere they work together, guitar crescendos building alongside frantic drumming into a massive wave of sound. At no point do they start to slack off or noodle. Indeed, their improvising builds and builds for nearly an hour.

Soundwise, it’s pretty good too, especially considering how it’s an audience tape. It’s not something crappy like an iPhone voice memo, but does a nice job capturing their spectrum of sound. And it’s one hell of a spectrum, too. It’s not the kind of thing everyone will like, but I suspect the kind of person who likes this will like it a lot. If you like noise rock, Merzbow, Sunn O))), Sonic Youth’s wilder moments and that kind of thing, please check this out! You won’t regret it. You can find the show at Doom and Gloom!


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