The Subversive Nature Of Kindness by Thor & FriendsRelease date: November 17, 2017
Label: Living Music Duplication
Cutting a primal figure whilst standing at the back hitting things as part of a legendarily loud and confrontational noise rock band is not perhaps the most usual way to raise your profile to the point where you might seriously suggest running for public office and yet, such is his apparent open hearted charisma that, this is what Thor Harris has, almost accidentally, achieved. Best known for his contributions to the recently concluded and extraordinary second life of Swans, his absence from their European dates earlier in the year was sadly noted. Alongside his musical accomplishments, for myself and others, his willingness to talk about his depression, his humorous, level headed writing and sound advice on punching Nazis have all helped to make him an almost beloved figure.
Which makes me feel a little bit like I owe him an apology for ignoring Thor & Friends up to this point. My reasons were half baked at best and ran along the lines of lazy prejudice about a ‘drummer’s band’ in which he plays with whoever happens to be around. It seemed like a part time dalliance almost custom built to deliver listlessly overlong jams. I feared hippy indulgence. There was also the timid functionality of the name. ‘Thor & Friends’ sounded like the project wasn’t serious enough for a proper name, it was a name for an insipid sitcom. (Although I now concede it could also be the name of a late night chat show I would definitely want to watch or, of course, a vividly dramatic Saturday morning cartoon).
Recently God Unknown records had the inspired idea to pair them with Woven Skull for a split single and I did manage to check that out but ‘Triangles’ just washed by and failed to grab me. Which is to say I was quite unprepared for just how great a record ‘The Subversive Nature of Kindness’ is from the very first listen, gorgeous repeating patterns of glowing, chiming, tuned percussion form the bedrock of their sound around which other elements come and go.
I’ve played it a lot over the past week or so, it only grows richer and more absorbing with repeat plays and still it often seems too short and goes straight back on again. A core trio of Peggy Ghorbani on marimba, Sarah “Goat” Gautier on marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, organ, voice, mellotron and piano and Thor on a variety of percussion and wind instruments, some of his own devising. On this record the additional elements include processed pedal steel, analog synth, violin, viola, stand-up bass, clarinet, duduk, oboe and a fair amount of wordless vocalising.
The band experiment within the forms of Minimalism and every element is carefully placed within the whole. Now, due to its profound and far reaching influence, Minimalism is a term that pops up discussing everything from techno to drone to Shellac’s austere rock but here it really does signal an obvious love and respect for Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. The only obvious contemporary comparison I can come up with is Ex Easter Island Head but while their prepared guitars have a strong New York avant garde vibe ‘The Subversive Nature of Kindness’ is much looser and more organic. It has something of the wide open spaces of Texas and the American west blowing through it. The second track ‘Carpet Creeps’ mixes some Morricone atmosphere in with the minimalism.
That inevitable sense of a soundtrack is there but it brings to mind Glass’ music gliding through ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ or Michael Nyman’s work for Peter Greenaway’s films, particularly the tightly circling string parts in ’90 Metres’ and ‘An Escapist Theme’. While they come together as a pleasing whole the nine tracks are not a suite of variations but discrete and self contained ideas, the clockwork bells and chimes of ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ are followed by the even more delicate, moonlit ‘Mouse Mouse’. The sometimes forbiddingly cerebral aspects in minimalism, exhaustingly working out combinations of set elements across long form compositions and so on are not entertained here. If you’ll forgive me – there is no process music in their process.
Fittingly for a project born out of friendship, Thor’s woodworking shop, and his own hand made instruments they seem to have devised a kind of folk minimalism that takes its formal innovations as tried and true building blocks for a set of warm and engaging instrumental pieces. Perhaps as a welcome contrast to the increasingly lengthy, intense stuff he was doing in Swans things are kept fairly short, the prevailing mood is light and airy.
The longest track ‘Grassfire’ is under 7 minutes but shifts away from the generally steady pulse and builds to the busiest of the tunes here, a teeming insectoid frenzy of violin stabs and jabbering voices. Although it’s often evocative, minimalism is essentially inward looking music, concerned with the magic of it’s own workings rather than storytelling or attempts to represent the natural world still, there’s no doubting the motivation behind calling a piece of it ‘Standing Rock’ after the Dakota pipeline stand off. I may have feared lazy hippy indulgence but what I got was exactly the opposite. Both musically and ideologically.
The title ‘The Subversive Nature of Kindness’ and the band’s stated hope the record can “ease some of the terror of living in these uncertain times.” could come across as a bit wet and whimsical in lesser hands but here strike you as sincere and true, the whole project an optimistic expression of the sort of tough humanism that would actually make Thor a great governor for Texas.
The final track is called ‘Resist’, a word that has this past year become a one word slogan of defiance and community in the face of the current, appalling and divisive US president. It is a melancholy but hopeful last post, wheezing out on what I take to be one of Harris’s own self made instruments. I doubt his political ambitions really have much chance, people in Texas are insane, but at least we can look forward to seeing the growth of his amazing, life affirming musical ones.