Bluegrass through the avant-garde blender. One of the weirdest ideas I’ve heard this year: a self-described, “intersection of free improvisation, effects-heavy noise music, and American roots music,” that seems bizarrely natural and unforced. The sweet spot on the dial between two neighbouring radio stations, miscegenating sweet bluegrass mandolin and violin-led tunes with contorted electronic drone and noise. Like a gnarled and perverted anti-Deliverance, this is music to torture hillbillies by and I was compelled to jot down a few words in homage to this disturbing yet oh-so-right recipe.
The opener, Orange Blossom Bullet Train (there’s a distinct locomotive theme to most of the track titles) starts with a railroad rhythm on bass and an almost-straight riff-strum from the mandolin, accentuated by the violin. Things quickly get increasingly queasy and the further it goes, the tighter it twists, the fiddle blurs with electronic sounds, the bass engine staying true and driving the whole thing like an atonal hoedown for dancers with three left feet.
This ‘start semi-straight and then degrade’ strategy continues for most of what follows. Black Berry’s twin violins (featuring Sarah Bernstein) lead us in a take your partner by the hand and then shred their eardrums with harsh noise dance. Morning Zephyr Waltz is a stately ¾ number recorded in a 1980s video game arcade, with a subtly off-kilter bass solo at its heart. The highlight of Metropolitan Special is the gorgeous, slow disintegration into clashing overdriven strings, fractured riffs and strangled effects; contrasting with the spacious, louche, slow freakout of Blue Comet Bankruptcy with added unwinding tick-tock percussion courtesy of Billy Martin (also featured on Orange Blossom…) Then Liberty follows the ‘bluegrass played by mad scientists’ formula in a spiralling dance of glorious derangement and relentlessly building insanity.
That formula is subverted on the closer, Cluck, which may be the most overtly avant piece here – beginning with an abstract drone sculpture, a jagged and amorphous collage out of which slowly emerges shape and form, transmogrifying into sinister, futuristic carnival music; a perfect postmodern accompaniment to some of Ray Bradbury’s more unsettling stories – just don’t ride the carousel…
This is an album with the quirk dialled to the max but you can (and should) take it seriously – it’s a compelling and intense 29 minutes, leaving a sense that Astroturf Noise have barely scratched the surface of the concept’s possibilities.
Orange Blossom Bullet Train
Morning Zephyr Waltz
Blue Comet Bankruptcy
Sam Day Harmet – mandolin/fx
Sana Nagano – violin/fx
Zach Swanson – bass
Sarah Bernstein – violin (track #2)
Billy Martin – percussion (tracks #1 & 5)
Astroturf Noise is available on vinyl, CD and download via 577 Records’ Bandcamp page.