and names are hardly accurate to what sounds they produce. In fact, they are thoroughly misleading. Yet, I cannot think of any term more appropriate than “unstable” to describe the Unstable Ensemble’s sonic musings found on Embers.
Embers is an album of experimental jazz, abstract improv, and minimal approaches that feels as if it could all fall apart, break at the seams, and crash into a million different pieces at any given instant. The key to Unstable Ensemble’s sound is quite simple, but routinely overlooked and marginalized: it is that of silence. Every track of the six that are found on Embers is swathed in still, subdued silence, to the point where it is undoubtedly the outfit’s most used instrument. Utilizing that as their reference point, the five members performing on this disc perforate the silence with touches of fleeting saxophone, meandering guitar notes, beat-less percussion, and high-pitched tapes and no-input mixer. Though, this rarely goes on all at once as extreme patience is valued at this juncture in cerebral, high-level minimalism.
The six compositions on Embers were all recorded during a summer tour in 2003, all exclusively improvised and abstracted. However, based exclusively on the magnified sounds that cling to this disc, the period in which Embers was crafted could easily have been the late ‘60s as their approach and resultant sound is very similar to that of AMM. The Unstable Ensemble’s successful and intriguing take on surrealist improvisation is virtually timeless in our modern music environment and still sounds fresh, lively, and, more than anything, thoroughly interesting today, though they do find commonalities in such contemporaries as Text of Light and Polwechsel.
Embers, as an album, has many diverse qualities and ideas that are presented in its 53 minutes, beginning with “Everything Vibrates.” The disc’s opening track is initiated with several minutes of silence as slight squeaks of saxophone and brittle guitar notes flicker in the sound’s periphery until the elements begin to coalesce into a jazz-esque sound at the track’s end. This is one of Ember’s most lively moments, carrying over into the more succinct “Bone” where this technique is epitomized. Substituting the pervading silence for a background of squealing, high-pitched feedback, “Sphere” sifts crackling percussion, creaks of string samples, and droning atmospheres into a 13 minute song that goes through enough changes and transitions to warrant an entire album.
What is most compelling about the Unstable Ensemble’s approach, however, is just how much it can vary depending on how greatly they pare it back or move their audible noise to the fore. Either way, though, their sound is so subtle and full of nuances that every rumble, squeak, hiss, pop, and squeal feels entirely necessary and vital to each song’s sonic make up. This album, above all, is something to truly listen to, a piece of music to revel in and really dissect—every fleeting sound, every stretch of silence.
Reviewed by: Ryan Potts
Reviewed on: 2005-10-21