On Second Thought
AMM - The Crypt






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

An eerie sensation inevitably accompanies each listen to the raw streams of electric noise channeled on AMM’s second album and early masterpiece, The Crypt . To ears informed by the twenty-first century, it’s the uncanny feeling of listening to three and a half decades of experimental music history as delivered in a chillingly prescient sort of reverse premonition. For somehow, in the middle of the 1960s, five slightly bookworm-looking gents from England managed to channel the searing distortion flows of early Merzbow cassettes nearly two decades ahead of schedule. In the very same sessions, they improbably pulled from the future the meditative rumbling-in-the-distance of Francisco Lopez and Bernhard Gunter, the fuzz-filled bubbling of the Dead C’s lo-fi dronescapes, and the discordant chime of early Sonic Youth – not to mention the scrabbling of a thousand later improv records. It’s a little unnerving that the only records that seem to accurately describe the brave new soundworld harnessed on The Crypt came into being well after its creation.

One would be wrong to say that AMM’s music at the time was completely without precedent – but he or she would also be wrong to say that the music on The Crypt sounds anything like the product of its historical roots. Tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe, percussionist Eddie Prevost, and saxophonist/violinist Lou Gare all emerged from a background in free jazz, but AMM’s hovering sheets of scraping and feedback exist in a realm of abstraction well beyond even Sun Ra’s most “out” efforts of the time. Similarly, cellist Cornelius Cardew and percussionist Christopher Hobbes shared a background in contemporary classical composition, but the wild explorations contained within The Crypt are so idiosyncratically free in their pursuit of absolute and unfettered sound that works of Stockhausen and Boulez sound tyrannically stuffy by comparison. Ideologically, AMM floats in a netherworld between John Cage’s “let sounds be themselves” edicts and Cardew’s view of improvisation as a communal “music for the people,” yet the sound is too highly individual for the former and ultimately too abrasive for the latter. From the time of The Crypt to the present day, AMM’s relationship with such historical influence proves to be one of constant escape – and the results are appropriately alien and consistently ahead of their time.

And what results they are – enveloping shrouds of feedback, unearthly scratches, echoed taps, ethereal whistles, the distant groan of industrial machinery. The occasional crunch of saturated tape that swallows “Like a Cloud Hanging in the Sky?” suggests extreme amplification, a logical complement to the piece’s often violent and confrontational swells of metal-on-metal clang and signal overload. Folded by excruciating volume and a plethora of extended technique, the individual instruments lose their individual identity and congeal into a massive group sound that teeters on the line between harnessed chaos and total collapse. Cardew’s cello and Rowe’s prepared guitar blend into a coarse drone painted with thick brushstrokes of static and flecked with transient blasts of shortwave squall, while Lou Gare’s saxophone squeals silvery multiphonics from the mire. In the distance, Prevost and Hobbes conjure metallic rattles with ritualistic intensity, as if summoning an electric storm from the cello and guitar. Unexpectedly, the roar yields to a nervous quiet strung together by lightly droning sine waves and punctuated by errant shrieks of feedback. Through its duration, the music remains seamless and organic – guided by an unconscious and unseen logic, as natural and mysterious as weather.

Elsewhere, AMM trades sustained violence for an equally tension-inducing atmosphere steeped in quiet intensity and assaultive outbursts. Both “Coffin Nor Shelf” and “Neither Bill Nor Axe Would Shorten Its Existence” orbit a center of ebbing feedback tones laid down by Rowe, whose penchant for gently throbbing textures runs parallel to his tendency toward electric-fan-to-the-strings anarchy. With beautifully detached poise and almost subliminal unity, the remaining members chime in with their own assortment of accompanying drones and taps or lash out in a ferocious skree of pulled patch cord buzz. Sounds rise to the fore and recede back into the distance, leaving tiny pools of silence behind until the next wave of unexpected noises reclaims their space. It is in these moments that AMM is at their most haunting. In one particularly shiver-inducing instant, Prevost’s snare drum rustles untouched beneath gently humming feedback from both Rowe and Cardew. Not a single player is actively “playing” his instrument: the sound is sustained – seemingly supernaturally – by the simple presence of the group. Bright shrieks of feedback interrupt, depart, and the meditative pulse returns. It’s a moment that is at once frightening and beautiful, and a moment that would have been inconceivable in the time before AMM’s exquisite brand of improvisation.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that unprecedented soundworlds pioneered on The Crypt – with all their violent and fragile beauty – should be such an influence on so many artists for years to come. Part of the strange sensation of retroactive déjà vu that AMM’s earlier music evokes stems from its apparent timelessness, a timelessness that reflects the truly uncommon sense of invention and courage of its creators. The Crypt is without a doubt a challenging affair – a record borne of such fearlessness and foresight that it remains vital and almost shockingly authentic nearly thirty-five years later. Ages ahead of its time, The Crypt is both an invaluable document of AMM’s explosive genesis and a blueprint of musical possibility for almost three generations of experimental artists – an essential classic from one of the 20th century’s most innovative and vital creative music ensembles.


By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-09-01
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