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Music Review: Ambarchi/O’Rourke/Haino – Tima Formosa

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The trio of Oren Ambarchi, Jim O’Rourke, and Keiji Haino amounts to something of an experimental music supergroup. These guys will never be mistaken for Blind Faith, of course, but all three have developed substantial followings among fans of the avant-garde.

Western audiences are probably most familiar with pianist Jim O’Rourke, who spent five years as a member of Sonic Youth. He also has a number of impressive production credits, which include Wilco, Stereolab, Sonic Youth, and John Fahey, among many others. Oren Ambarchi (guitar) has been heavily involved in the drone metal scene, especially in his collaborations with the group Sunn O))).

For the Japanese audience who attended this concert, vocalist Keiji Haino is undoubtedly the most well known of the trio. Haino’s first band was an improvisational psychedelic outfit called Lost Aaraaf, formed in 1970. He has been at the leading edge of Japanese music ever since.

The three tracks that comprise Tima Formosa were recorded in January of 2009, and total about an hour of music. Like Miles Davis’ legendary mid-seventies Japanese recordings, Agharta and Pangaea, this is basically one long improvisation. Where Davis utilized as broad a palette as possible, though, this trio seems to revel in the minimalism of the drone.

“Timo Formosa 1,” which clocks in at just under 25 minutes, is pretty polite for the most part. Especially so as the three are each considered mavericks in their fields. The drone is omnipresent, and gives the piece a dark, even sinister ambient feel. Haino’s otherworldly vocals add to the effect, which is also punctuated by random noise outbursts along with what sounds like chimes.

“Timo Formosa 2” is nearly a pop song in comparison to the previous track. The drone is still there, but this tune adds a chant from Haino right off, and features some very tinkly-sounding piano work from O’Rourke. At only four minutes, it links the two prolonged sections that bookend the disc.

The payoff is the 31-minute “Timo Formosa 3.” The musicians seem to have hit their stride by this point, and the music is much more intriguing as a result. The drone is ever present, but there is now a beat behind it, a rhythmic chugging that recalls the building cadences of a train leaving the station. Various percussion and electronics are introduced, as well as some searing feedback from Ambarchi’s guitar. The piece steadily gains momentum, and Haino’s vocals scream like a banshee. This type of intensity is what I had expected all along from these men, and thankfully they come through.

The music Ambarchi/O’Rourke/Haino created that night is a mixed bag, to be sure. But that is one of the key elements of improvised, experimental music. I think that there is a lot of merit to such uncompromising adventurousness, and for those who feel the same way, Tima Formosa is worth looking into.

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