Concrete by Jason van Gulick

Release date: January 19, 2018
Label: Consouling Sounds / Silken Tofu

It’s a narrow tightrope that an avant-garde musician must balance upon. Veer too far one way and the musician risks being branded as bland or playing things safe: après garde, if you like. Wobble the other way and there lies the danger of becoming merely unlistenable. Jason van Gulick appears to be an expert at tiptoeing along the thin line of avant-garde where his music is challenging, yet also moving and atmospheric.

Sure, his latest album Concrete is not exactly the sort of record you’d put on to relax to – it demands attention and conjures some spooky feelings – but it is accessible enough to spin if you are in the mood for some architecturally influenced percussion.

I am well aware that the last three words in the previous paragraph will provoke raised eyebrows among the less tolerant of unorthodox or experimental music, but as soon as you have a listen to Concrete, the description will make sense. Because Van Gulick is a trained architect and his musical approach takes in the relationship (or conflict) between his drums and the space in which he hits them. And, as the album’s title implies, the result is sometimes cold, occasionally harsh and incredibly stark.

There are five tracks, each entitled ‘Concrete’. The first, ‘Concrete 1’, starts with a lone, scraping metallic sound (as in made by something made of metal, rather than anything to do with the musical genre) as a cymbal is gently coaxed into noise, before a foreboding drone takes over. Then the rapid hitting of a cymbal appears in our ears, adding to the tension. It dies away to a mere tapping before abruptly ending.

The second track is just as unnerving, dominated at first by a pulsing tympani, then a snare which slows as it gets louder. The first time I listened to this track I was cycling late at night through a dark city park and boy, it gave me the shivers. The third track is only a little more than a minute and a half long and is a difficult listen, as it is white noise. What follows, however, is an enormous industrial sounding drone like an ancient electric power plant, over which Van Gulick plays a regular drumkit in almost a funeral doom beat. The final track is a kind of requiem, with a far more subtle drone, interrupted by rumbles like distant thunder, with sharp sound effects over the top. It is lovely – in the same way that a tiny poison-dart frog is cute.

If it is not obvious already, this is not the sort of music I usually listen to. But I am glad I discovered this. It is a real treat – if a little spooky. And it straddles the avant-garde tightrope with ease.

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