Stylus, Joe Panzner
True to Erstwhile's "first pairings" doctrine, eh marks the first duo recording from two of Vienna's most innovative improvisers, guitarist Burkhard Stangl and turntablist Dieter Kovacic, better known as Dieb13. Both Stangl and Dieb13 have long worked together as members of the Austrian electroacoustic quartet Efzeg, a group whose dark and restrained static storms certainly serve as a preliminary touch point for much of the music found within the eh's stylistic sprawl. While the sound may bear a resemblance to their larger group, the tone and pacing of the duo's performance owes more to the setting for the duo's first meeting in 1999 - the intimacy of a Viennese living room concert. eh is beautifully relaxed and expressive fare, and it gives the impression of sitting between two close friends playing through a leisurely - but meticulously considered - series of stratagems ranging from the hauntingly melodic to the microscopically abstracted.
The album's ten tracks - whose titles consist of little more than ten four-character permutations of the letters "e" and "h" - explore the full gamut of sonic possibility, from raging metallic drone to gently rumbling drifts of gritty ambience with flashes of melodic invention. Stangl's playing alternates between muted prepared guitar scratch, string-rattling noise hysterics, and a lulling blues-tinged melodic approach reminiscent of the echoed plucking of latter-day John Fahey or the less ethereal wanderings of Loren Mazzacane Connors. Dieb13 deftly maneuvers his turntables between the poles of turntable-as-sound-generator purism and vinyl citation, creating a deep and shifting silt littered with pockets of electronic interference and the ghostly warbling of antiquated records. Mixing and matching their wealth of techniques, Stangl and Kovacic play between the limits of economy and exploration to create a series of captivating vignettes marked as much by rapt attention to sonic detail as by a pleasantly tempered expressiveness.
The album is framed most notably by two beautifully hushed pieces casting Stangl's angular blues melodies against Dieb13's warm backdrop of antique vinyl crackles and electronic chirps. In the first duet, Stangl's languid plucking suspends delicate modal wisps that spiral into ever-longer suggestions of melody with each passing repetition, sometimes withdrawing from his melodic arc to leave eerie resonance hanging above Kovacic's glitch whispers. The electronics take a more aggressive stance in the final moments of the piece, as Kovacic attempts to bury the unflinching Stangl beneath chunks of sharp-edged detritus left to dull into a muffled rustle beneath distilled blues guitar. The final track follows a similar course but replaces Dieb's vinyl crackle with a gorgeous aerosol mist of granular prickles, digital chimes, and woozy interludes of wavering noise. Like the first track, there is a final surge of noise, but Dieb's second encroachment ends with an abrupt and eerie silence. In a moment nothing short of breathtaking, the final gasp of Stangl's back-porch elegy lingers plaintively in otherwise empty air. It's a brilliant postscript and a stunning moment in a genre not typically known for convincing conclusions - a moment of expressive power that reflects a potent musical sensitivity and transcends much of the perceived airlessness of improvised music.
The middle portion of eh offers equally satisfying, if not as immediately accessible, music for those willing to delve into its spinier interior. The album's inner tracks quickly dispel any initial "guitar with electronic accompaniment" impressions with aplomb. Dieb13's approach becomes decidedly more proactive, and the increased restlessness of his rough-edged noisescapes leaves Stangl to nestle shards of bowed guitar and metallic plunks in the gaps between surges. Though the dynamic of many tracks - particularly the whispery "eehe" and "ehee" - hovers just above audibility, the level of activity maintains a remarkable density, with Kovacic and Stangl weaving increasingly anonymous gestures into a bustling microcosm of scattered debris. A few tracks find the duo exploring more aggressive dynamic territory with surprising results - the full-on noise assault of "ehhh" betrays a hidden layer of scraped strings and depth charge rumbles, while the skipping 78-RPM wobble and synth squelches of "eehh" evoke a queasy nostalgia before dissolving into a splintery series of static eruptions. Though they may mine more difficult territory, these tracks maintain the heightened focus of the delicate outer tracks while transmuting their expressive potential into considerably spikier exchanges.
Like all of Erstwhile's releases, eh is masterfully recorded, edited, and packaged - a major benefit, since eh requires numerous listens to unfold beyond the beauty of its elegant introduction and epilogue. It's challenging and richly rewarding material, the sound of long-time partners exercising the full freedom and flexibility of the duo setting as well as the limitless potential of the respective instruments. Moreover, Stangl and Dieb13 succeed in creating an interior dialogue as filled with expressive reference as it is with audible nuance - each surprise textural turn or voice leaking from vinyl uncovers new atmospheres and invites new associations. eh is both a cerebral and sensual pleasure and further proof of the limitless creative potential of the new wave of electroacoustic improvisation.
The Wire, Dan Warburton
Erstwhile's Jon Abbey makes sure all his releases are superbly recorded, mastered and packaged - there's a distinctive Erstwhile look (the Friederike Paetzold graphics with minimal visible information) and, increasingly it seems, an Erstwhile sound: grainy, predominantly slow-moving, laminal (Phil Durrant's term) electroacoustic improvisation. Such concern for visible and audible branding recalls ECM, and (stretching the analogy) if Abbey's playing Manfred Eicher, guitarist Burkhard Stangl is somewhere between Terje Rypdal and Ralph Towner - spacious and haunting, but not averse to the odd blast of fuzzed-out fury, and always conscious of the contemporary classical tradition around him.
"Eh" is the third Erstwhile album featuring Stangl, and was recorded, like its predecessors "Schnee" and "Wrapped Islands", at Christoph Amann's studio in Vienna. Partnering him here is turntablist / laptopper dieb13, aka Dieter Kovacic; both also play in Efzeg with Boris Hauf and Martin Siewert. Thanks to dieb13's rumbles, toy car zooms and creaky snatches of old cabaret tunes, "Eh" is considerably more varied than its unimaginative track titles might have you think (surely these chaps could have come up with something more poetic than four-letter permutations of "e" and "h"?) and livelier than the guitarist's recent work with SSSD, his spaced-out quartet with Siewert, Werner Dafeldecker and Taku Sugimoto. Stangl has been playing a lot of chess with Sugimoto lately though, and is quite content to let his gorgeous first-inversion eleventh chords fade away while he considers his next move. The long final track finds him exploring various permutations of an E flat plagal cadence against a glistening backdrop of tiny crackles and bleeps - you could almost slip a lazy backbeat behind it all and let it float on forever, but Kovacic pulls the magic carpet from under the guitar and leaves it hanging in the air.
Signal to Noise, Jason Bivins
Finally from Erstwhile, eh - a meeting of guitarist Burkhard Stangl and turntablist Dieb 13 - is simply one of the most rapturous recordings in recent memory. Featuring primarily natural acoustic guitar, the disc is chock full of heart-on-sleeve melodicism set amidst an eclectic series of backdrops. As machines spit out bits of noise - from burbles to long tones to phonographic ghosts - Stangl plays steadfastly, sticking to his musical convictions as it were, sounding almost like a lyrical sojourner in some dark mechanical hinterland. This isn't to say that the relationship between the two polarities is hostile; it's just that, whether the players are in completely contrastive mode (as on the opening track "eeeh") or playing with more overt consonance ("eehh," with its subterranean bass set next to the sounds of an old victrola - a meta-musical commentary if ever there was one), the starkness of the relationship, the sonorities, and the approaches is exposed. Overall, there is a deep sadness to the recording. It's certainly far more expressive than Stangl's excellent Schnee (a meeting with Christof Kurzmann, also on Erstwhile) and closer in some ways to portions of his Durian release Recital. The closing "hehe" is almost hymnal, with lush plucking drifting amid a sine wave. Ranging from near total silence to dense squalling, there is a still melancholy at the center, almost like (in Marx's famous phrase about religion) the heart of a heartless world. Sublime.
All Music Guide, Brian Olewnick
One of the central aesthetics of the Erstwhile label is the counterpositioning of electronic and acoustic improvisers. Rarely has that been more starkly, and beautifully, achieved than on the opening and closing tracks of eh by guitarist Stangl and turntablist/electronicist Dieb13 (Dieter Kovacic). Stangl is one of a handful of contemporary free improv musicians who happily forays into tonal, even melodic spheres, conjuring up a reduced version of John Fahey, perhaps. On "eeeh", his delicate strummings operate in tandem with subtle electronic scurrying underneath as Dieb13 probes the pastoral veneer, seeking and eventually finding fissures through which to erupt. When, near the end of the piece, he bursts forth, it's as though a flood of long-pent natural phenomena have established an equilibrium; not a conquest, but a rapprochement. This and the final track serve as brackets for eight explorations into more overtly abstract and no less fascinating territory. In these pieces, determining which musician is responsible for what sounds is fruitless. There are fewer recognizable guitar notes here, Stangl presumably using other devices, and a seamless, rumbling unity is attained, sonically sometimes in the vicinity of Xenakis' electronic works but, and this is crucial, entirely improvised. Listeners who enjoy that composer's "Bohor" will get a similar kick out of "ehhh"'s harsh, metal-tearing roar. Throughout, Dieb13 displays an extraordinary imagination in his choices. Still, one gets the impression he's merely dipped into his sound repository, that there remains an ocean of them waiting their turn to be heard. When, after a pause, the final cut arrives, Stangl's soft, pure guitar is strolling hand in hand with the tiny pings and scratches of his partner, ambling into the ether. eh is a superb recording, demonstrating once again, as if it's still needed, the rich and limitless range of freely improvised music in the 21st century.