Stylus, Ed Howard
The music of the Erstwhile Records catalogue resides in a very unique place in the modern musical climate. Although each of the label's releases has been very different from all the others -- both conceptually and sound-wise -- they have been united by a common concern with creating dense, immersive sound worlds wholly unlike any usually encountered in free improvisation. On Rabbit Run, three of Erstwhile's most frequent contributors combine to create a wild, eclectic mish-mash that inserts the listener into an always-unpredictable cartoon world of falling anvils, exaggerated sound effects, and surrealist scenery.
This is the sequel to Erstwhile's earlier release Bart, a collaboration between the very distinct synthesizer voices of Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler; with the addition of unconventional guitarist Keith Rowe, the music is every bit as abrasive and schizophrenic as on Bart, but with an even greater catholicity of moods and sounds. A great part of Rabbit Run's increased lunacy quotient must surely be attributed to Schmickler, who sequenced the record post-production into 42 bite-sized nuggets of sound, none of them exceeding two minutes. In this form, the music at times flows naturally from track to track, but just as often it shifts direction wildly without even a second's notice, which adds to the feelings of total edge-of-your-seat listening that the trio inspires. A further level of conceptual disorientation is achieved by the fact that the album is meant to be played either as a full front-to-back listen, or on random shuffle mode, thus disrupting even the fragile continuities of Schmickler's original running order.
No matter how it's played, though, Rabbit Run exists in a very compelling state of continual unbalance. Squiggly synth squirts and dirty bursts of shaped noise from Lehn and Schmickler collide unpredictably with Rowe's signature rumbles of scraped strings and radio transmissions. There's a very visceral physicality to this music, a sense of these discrete elements tangibly hitting up against each other and combining in the space created by the album. Though the three musicians involved in this project are each capable of creating an impressive din independently -- and in unison their bursts of cartoonish cacophony are nearly skull-cracking -- Rabbit Run is not just an endless succession of unbearably loud fragments. In fact, what makes this album so powerful is the contrast between the harsher moments and the occasional near-silent lulls of delicate interaction that crop up unpredictably amid the chaos.
And the changes between these two extremes (and the considerable mid-ground in between) are always unpredictable, even after countless listens. I sense that there's just way too much going on here for it to ever truly sink in. As such, each time this CD spins it's a fresh experience, a new journey into a hostile and exciting sound world that seems to undergo a dramatic metamorphosis just when you think you've got it in your hands. High-pitched sine wave frequencies flutter at the edges of hearing, shards of abused guitar slice the flesh, granular blocks of synth sound merge and mutate into monolithic clouds of noise. Most surprising of all, Rowe's radio occasionally summons bursts of recognizable techno, hip-hop, and classical music from the static-ridden ether, and even these brief quotations don't seem out-of-place -- which says a lot about the kinds of maniacal sounds being created by Lehn and Schmickler's synths.
If you blink, you've missed it all -- no sound ever remains constant for long in this restless sea. Rabbit Run is the accomplishment of three improvisers working in the absolute extremes of their individual aesthetics, refusing to compromise their signature sounds while still finding plenty of places for each other in the overall sound. Rabbit Run is jam-packed with detail, and yet paradoxically it never becomes too much. The accumulation of sounds is just overwhelming enough to short-circuit all brain cells and force the listener to become completely submerged in the album -- Rabbit Run has its own unique logic, and the only way to appreciate it is on its own terms, by allowing its heady mix of chaos and balance to infiltrate your world.
Grooves, Joe Panzner
How refreshing, as improvisation continually moves toward a more microscopic scale, that the first recorded meeting between tabletop guitarist Rowe and synthesizers Lehn and Schmickler is such an unabashedly maximal affair. Rowe's recent efforts, like his pensive duets with John Tilbury or Toshi Nakamura, have offered some of the most convincing arguments for "less is more" stratagems, but his restlessness and investigative imperative prevent a lazy subscription to the quietly dogmatic. Lehn and Schmickler are natural candidates for pulling Rowe into more aggressive, high-velocity territory - the rampaging analog-versus-digital steeplechase of their last Erstwhile effort (2000's Bart) serves as an apt foundation for this trio's ferocious squabbling. Rabbit Run isn't just a flashy update of its predecessor, and there's more than just additional hustle and bustle on this outing - there's a keenly refined sense of concentration and dynamic working within the flash and fury.
The event density and the amount of information turned over in the course of forty-two minutes is dizzying, yet the trio maintains a core of focused interaction beneath the frenzied exterior. Lehn and Schmickler work up fission-core storms of fizzles and crunches or snap into sympathetic drones behind Rowe's rich storehouse of rattles, pickup disturbances, and Duchampian lacerations from stray radio signals. A sustained air of uneasiness marks the group's textural explorations, ranging from wispy sputters to gushing torrents of overloaded electronics, and even the quietest interludes feature an ear-stretching proliferation of jittery twitches and deep-space warbles. An additional layer of depth is lent to the proceedings by Schmickler, whose careful post-production divides Rabbit Run into 42 tracks, allowing for innumerable reinterpretations via shuffled playback - a clever tactic for representing the raw potentiality of the trio's multivalent live performances. Like Rowe's genius mingling of pop and high-art symbolism on the cover, Rabbit Run's electro-explosions support any number of readings - a reaction against furrowed-brow minimalism, a retort to cultural excess, or perhaps just an invigorating noise workout - while maintaining an uncommonly wild and consistently riveting immediacy. Bold and brilliant stuff.
All Music Guide, Brian Olewnick
Take Marcus Schmickler and Thomas Lehn, the two musicians responsible for the rambunctiously brutal Bart release on the same label and add AMM mastermind Keith Rowe into the mix, and you have a recipe for some outstanding, stance-questioning music. Rabbit Run delivers. One of the premises called into question is the nature of freeimprovisation. Although the initial recordings for this session were done live and in real time, what has ended up on the disc is at least several times removed due to the post-production work of Marcus Schmickler. Precisely what has changed is impossible for the listener to determine, making the point moot in one respect; but experienced fans of the genre will certainly wish to know that what they're hearing is subtly (perhaps crucially) different from what they're used to. Additionally, Schmickler has divided the single take section into 42 tracks and has suggested that the listener utilize the shuffle mode when playing it, resulting in the possibility of a virtually infinite number of permutations. This effect can be disconcerting even though the original track is disjointed enough. But that sense of imbalance is undoubtedly what the musicians had in mind. What of the music itself? Although the dynamic level varies enormously, there is rarely a sense of calm, even in the quieter moments. More often, there is a certain amount of stressfulness; a bracing harshness that allows the listener little solid purchase, instead cajoling him over a giddy, explosive soundscape of erupting electronica. Ascertaining precisely which musician is doing what at any given moment is a hopeless task and matters little. The totality of the music is vibrant, searching, and always exciting; imagine Bart squared. An extra added goody is Rowe's wonderful, thematically multi-layered cover painting, well worth an attempt at deconstruction. A superb release regardless in what order one listens to it.