In many people’s prejudices (mine included, sometimes) solo percussion is shackled with interminable free jazz improvisation, or that part of a gig where you can sneak out for a beer or go to the toilet without anyone judging you. Fortunately, Polar Satellites, Nathan Bowles and Scott Verrastro’s album of improvised percussion, steers well clear of dull, self-involved or unlistenable. In fact, opening track “Asymptotic Gravity I” contains few sounds recognisable from a standard drum kit. Instead it is a brief lesson in melodic percussion, thick clangs of bells and wisps of bowed cymbals making odd, disjointed tunes over an atmospheric, rippling background.
The album often relies more on atmosphere, on a thick fog of sound, just as much, if not more, than it does on crisp, interesting patterns. The opener is an early example, but other tracks like “Circled” may have a strong, rolling beat, but it never feels like this is the sole appeal of the piece, although the surging circular (appropriately) motion is certainly exciting. It is the overlapping and interaction of instruments, and the combined sounds they make that is more interesting – Bowles and Verrastro seem to be less concerned with the hit and more with the lingering noise afterwards. “Asymptotic Gravity II” is, like its predecessor, a great example of this, a variety of cymbals and other metallic percussion ringing together, often played rapidly to build up a wash of sound, blending with each other and an unidentifiable background drone in tonal experiments that easily overwhelm the piece’s virtually non-existent pulse.
14-minute opus “Palanquin Opiate” is a fairly comprehensive microcosm of Polar Satellites. It starts off firmly in the atmospheric, beatless mode with the rustling of sleigh bells (though devoid of festivity) and a broken, atonal melody from something that sounds like a pipe, but considering the variety of unexpected instruments on the album frankly it could be anything. The first hints of solid rhythm come, perversely, not from percussion but from a flat, twanging banjo that begins a plodding harmonic sequence that is eventually joined by heavily reverberating drums. This slow march cycles throughout most of the piece, exploring the introduction of extra beats, adding a metallic polyrhythm here, or there filling out the texture with a distorted, shivering tune or by bringing back the bells. It builds in this way like a post-rock epic, gathering momentum and volume until the climactic maelstrom.
Bowles and Verrastro essentially show their whole hand in this piece – ambient percussion, experimenting with repetition via minute variation and development, the occasional, well-timed release of chaotic noise – but this doesn’t render the rest of the album irrelevant. The duo comfortably play on these underlying forms without running out of ideas. Instrumental in keeping the pieces fresh is their command of tone. Polar Satellites swings between high drama (verging on melodrama) and comedy; by not appearing to take themselves too seriously, the pair avoid the self-indulgence and deliberate obscurity that can categorise solo percussion work. Epitomising the former mood is “Enter Thoth”. Its title begs over-the-top, theatrical music and Bowles and Verrastro don’t disappoint. A tense ripple of cymbals announces booming timpani, with skins so loose you can virtually hear individual vibrations. Everything in the track is deep and important, exuding an amusing surfeit of gravitas. You can only imagine how much fun it must have been to record something so knowingly hyperbolic.
“Chakapa Vomit” (again, as per its title) goes down the route of more direct amusement. It features rattles and sleigh bells, and there’s an inherent playfulness to these sounds even if, like on “Palanquin Opiate”, they are atonal and sometimes close to arrhythmic; they don’t lose all of their light heart. For much of the piece, the two performers seem to be just enjoying certain sounds. A good minute and a half in the middle of the piece comprises a funny, pleasingly lo-fi, clanging sound played in a jaunty rhythm, until it is joined by another table-esque instrument. The two then weave in and out of each other in deceptively simple, intricate polyrhythms. It might be serious fun, but it’s still fun.
That sense of amusement is really unleashed in the short closing track, “Coach a Dram”. This is one of the few moments where Bowles and Verrastro drop their tasteful restraint and pull out all the stops. The relentless clatter sounds like they’re running around the studio, hitting everything available in a frenzy of final excitement. There’s even a yelp of adrenaline in the opening seconds. This is what makes the album so enjoyable: it sounds like the musicians are enjoying making it and so, as well as being interesting on a technical level, it’s a pleasure to listen to.
– Matt Gilley for Fluid Radio