Yeh + Lee + Marhaug

Wake Up Awesome

Okkyung Lee and Lasse Marhaug worked together closely on the former’s recent album “Ghil”; here they are joined by kindred spirit C. Spencer Yeh for a three-way studio workout. And it’s a blast: the trio power through fifteen short tracks, lurching from earbleeding noise to lush quiet melody and back again at a stomach-clenching pace, tossing wonky pianos, throat singing, spellbinding synth lines, broken records and more into the sonic blender. As is usual for the noisier end of improvised music, the musicians show their skill in striking a balance between maintaining a more or less coherent structure and daring each other to go further — yet ‘going further’ in this case doesn’t automatically translate into playing faster or harder, with the momentum built up through the tension between chaos and control allowing for some pretty surprising twists and turns.

Anyone watching the pretty spider-and-bokeh video for promo track “Ophelia Gimmie Shelter” would be forgiven for thinking they were in for an album of yearning ‘modern classical’ Romanticism. In truth such moments of unabashed beauty are relatively few, but the confidence with which the trio allow them to erupt is striking: the torrent of noise is interrupted as suddenly and with as much violence as when noise itself is used by other musicians to interrupt a flow of traditional tonal harmonies. Perhaps this says something pertinent about what it means to throw out the avant-garde rule book in 2013. The intensity of the playing is never compromised, yet it no longer seems enough to simply trash yesterday’s calcified style: it is the easy opposition between intensity and thought, percept and concept, beauty and critique, that must now be obliterated. These three musicians are up to the challenge, but the unfolding of the album’s form seems more like an articulation of this problem than its resolution. It is somehow by necessity that speaker-melting dissonance sits next to graceful concordant lyricism, side-by-side yet remaining separate. The occasionally glimpsed spectre of the sublime receives the barest of acknowledgements, the slightest nod of the head.

As the title implies, these tracks are joyful leaps into the unknown as much as they are custard pies in the face of the clichéd — abandonment and refusal held together by a third, altogether more critical impulse. What “Wake Up Awesome” ultimately sounds like is probably what it is: three good friends having an absolute riot of a time making music. However, this is serious fun, and carries enough weight to blast open the ears of anyone who has grown too settled and comfortable in their own musical outlook, whatever view of music’s ultimate purpose and criteria they hold. In a word: awesome.

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