The Chicago-land area is renown for some of the best jazz and blues musicians this side of New Orleans, including artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy Williamson. And the annual Chicago Jazz Festival attracts thousands each year. But jazz and blues is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the years the Windy City has produced a string of popular and successful recording artists covering all spectrum of the music scene from the classic rock era of the 60s' with The Buckinghams, The Shadows Of Knight, The Mauds, The New Colony Six, H.P. Lovecraft, The Flock, The Cryan Shames, The American Breed, The Ides Of March, and of course Chicago; to the platinum selling arena rockers of the 70s' and 80s' like Styx, Survivor, and Cheap Trick. And following in the footsteps of the Detroit Motown sound, Chicago also had their share of popular soul groups and successful recording artists like The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, Lou Rawls, The Chi-Lites, The Staple Singer, Rufus, and Chaka Khan. Chicago also played a hand in shaping the alternative, industrial and punk music scene with artists like The Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, Ministry, and Naked Ray Gun. As well as the birthplace for punk rock legend Patti Smith.
So it comes as no surprise that an experimental R.I.O. avant-garde group like Gunnelpumpers could also find a niche in the Chicago music scene. Especially when you consider Chicago may well have been ground zero when it came to organizing experimental musicians into a respected music collective.
The AACM (The Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians) was founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1965 by pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams who had been an experimental musician since 1962. Early members of the AACM included the Art Ensemble Of Chicago: Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, and Malachi Favors.
These were the pioneers who championed what would later encompass everything from jazz fusion to the various sub-genres in R.I.O., avant-garde music, and electronic chamber music.
And Gunnelpumpers perform some of the most extreme forms of darkly Gothic, chaotic, confrontational, and dissonant music this side of John Zorn, John Cage, King Crimson, Univers Zero, Henry Cow, Velvet Underground, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, Etron Fu Leloublan, and Samla Mammas Manna.
“Montana Fix” is the fourth album from Gunnelpumpers, following “The nth Wave” (2010), “Symphonie Improvise” (2010), and “Tritonium” (2012).
The 19 instrumental tracks were recorded live in two days with minimal overdubbing. What you're hearing is seven creative musicians utilizing free improvisation in it's rawest form; combining baroque elements of Univers Zero's unsettling chamber music, early Krautrock, World music, nu jazz, highly experiment blocks of dissonant sound, and traditional contemporary classical music. Oftentimes sounding like the soundtrack to a Eli Roth “Hostel” horror film.
This isn't for the faint of heart, or someone craving a collection of melodic tunes with a catchy hook. “Montana Fix” is for the adventurous listener familiar with Wayside Music and their Cuneiform Label - an indie label dedicated to eclectic artists unafraid to push the envelope.
I freely admit to being a longtime fan of the Belgium group Univers Zero and Roger Trigaux's Present, but as a rule I tend to steer clear of R.I.O. Bands. Too much noise masqueraded as music. Yet there are bits and pieces of this album which are simply brilliant (“Puzzle Dust”, “Earthing”, “Smokeblossom” and “Aurelius The Cinderbiter”), while other tracks I find downright annoying … “Buffalo Jump” being one of them.
About midway through “Buffalo Jump” the distorted guitar climbs up the scale, getting more aggressive - and annoying – with each passing second, setting my frayed nerves on edge. I silently pray that guitarist John Meyers runs out of frets and the song can come to a merciful end … but it continues, and in a state of frenzied paranoia I hallucinate the vision of an expanding guitar neck stretching eight feet long, and Meyers fingers have yet to reach the mid-way point. Never has 2:43 seemed so log.
I now understand how music can be utilized by the military as an effective weapon, or as an enhanced interrogation technique to break the will of an enemy combatant. After a three hour loop of “Buffalo Jump” pumped into my head I'd admit to the killing JFK even though I was only 13 at the time, and living in Gary, Indiana.
This is not the emotion I was hoping for when I settled back to write this review.
Tracks like “Mundus” didn't get under my skin quite as badly, but was little more than 6:49 of running a bow across a bass string. Just a continuous drone. No melody … just noise.
King Crimson's improvisational influences run throughout the album “Montana Fix”, at times sounding like the Crimson line-up from “Islands” on tracks like “Bassacaglia” and “Stwing Feowy”, while other tracks like “Floobah” and “Sparkboat” are reminiscent of the “Larks Tongue In Aspic” line-up and the Crimson instrumental track “The Talking Drum”. Then there were tracks which were little more than a chaotic cacophony of pure noise, and those tracks brought to mind the Crimson improvisational album “Thrakattak” (easily my least favorite Crimson album).
The quirky tune “Bottley Functions” was a humorous ditty performed on beer bottles, with the seven members either blowing into the bottles or using the bottles as percussion instruments.
Although I mentioned “Puzzle Dust”, “Earthing” and “Smokeblossom” (which has a Ozric Tentacles vibe to it) as stand-out tracks, the absolute gem of the album was “Aurelius The Cinderbiter” which appeared to be a more tightly constructed and well rehearsed composition than many of the 'seat of your pants' improvisations on the album. Easily the highlight for me.
The seven accomplishes musicians making up Gunnelpumpers include sessions musicians versed in all manner of music from rock to a performing member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And how many bands can you recall with three bassists. Yes … they are unique.
The line-up includes: Doug Brush (percussion, Tama Talking Drum, carved wooden flute, metal recorder, Nakirs, Tabla, beer bottle, Congas, Djembe, finger cymbals, Bendir, bar chimes, bells, round bells, suspended cymbal, Rain Drum, Tar), Randy Farr (percussion, Congas, finger cymbals, beer bottle, shakers), Matthew Golombisky (Melodica, likeable noise, double bass, electric bass, Tiebetan Singing Bowl, beer bottle), Michael Hovnanian (double bass, beer bottle), Douglas Johnson (double bass, Clevinger Bass, beer bottle), John Meyer (electric guitar, beer bottle), and Quinlan Kirchner (percussion, drum kit, bar chime, snare drum, suspended cymbal).
If you're looking for something a bit more challenging than the standard fare prog/rock you've been listing to – or happen to be an aficionado of R.I.O. then Gunnelpumpers and their album “Montana Fix” is well worth a listen. Especially fans of Crimson's improvisational pieces.
But if you prefer your prog/rock more along the lines of symphonic, classic, or neo-prog this might not be your cup of tea.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on July 18th, 2013