This raging fireball of an album comes to us via the good people of Corbett vs Dempsey, who have contributed more to free music in 2018 than I feel they get credit for. Whether reissuing rare gems such as Milford Graves' Bäbi, an item longed after by this reviewer for years, or albums such this that might not otherwise have seen the light of day, the curation has been spectacular and the physical packaging excellent. Brace for Impact documents a 2008 studio session from free improvisation mainstays Joe McPhee and Mats Gustafsson. According to the CvsD website, McPhee and Gustafsson liked these recordings so much that they immediately mixed and mastered the proceedings for an unspecified label only to have them collect dust in the vaults for the next decade. Fast forward to the present where CvsD has done this lost session justice with a knockout release emblazoned with artwork by Chicago-based artist Charline von Heyl.
The album kicks off with "Race Matters", coupling Gustafsson's high frequency electronic whine with McPhee's even higher pitched vocalizations and variations of croaking and other throat and mouth noises through his horn before capping it off with some expressive runs on alto sax. A little past the midpoint, Gustafsson stops tinkering with the electronics and throttles his baritone. Both players vocalize heavily through their instruments, layering banshee-like screams and moans alongside more traditional skronk. It's a hell of a start to the album. "Blame Game" mixes dueling percussive reed/mouthpiece pops and pad/key clatter with staccato squeaks, resonant horn blasts, and breathy scat-song. The colorfully named "Porno Graphics" is a bluesy interchange of saxophone and clarinet which provides a nice reprieve from the violence of the first two tracks. Of course, there are moments of near/semi eruption throughout, but they are used more sparsely as punctuation rather than backbone. "Just Green" is a reserved and probing track, featuring Gustafsson on alto flutophone (I think) and McPhee on alto clarinet, on the left and right channels respectively. The piece is thickly stacked with lamenting phrases and is a surprisingly effective way to integrate the flutophone which I'd assumed would just be used as a noisemaker.
"Just Blue" follows, beginning in a manner that makes it hard to discern that a new track has begun until Gustafsson's baritone becomes noticeable as such. It feels like a second take of the previous cut with alternate instrumentation, though McPhee remains on alto clarinet. His playing is gorgeous across both tracks and Gustafsson's accompaniment is perfect. Things take a noisy turn on "Suicide Chicken Wings Over Nickelsdorf (for Hans Falb)", where Mats resumes his prickly electronics as McPhee squeaks and stutters over the top. Gustafsson switches to sax, providing rounded heaps that morph into bursts of squelching treble. They close out the track with breathy phrases, percussive reed tonguing, and rhythmic pad clicks. "Bat Cave Feast (For Charlie McPhee)" unleashes some excellently tempered dual saxophone interplay. While a bit more fiery than the previous several tracks, the give-and-take between the two remains almost telepathic. Gustafsson closes out the track with his searing baritone, which McPhee pocks with trumpet bleats. The final track "Then Ingo Ate The Snake" concludes the album with McPhee on alto and Gustafsson on baritone, providing one last strangled piece of perfectly executed free improvisation to cap off one of the better albums in this style that I've heard in a quite a while.
It amazing to think that this music spent a decade on the shelf. And while music doesn't ripen like a wheel of pungent cheese, who's to say it doesn't sound a little better knowing that we may not have had the opportunity to hear it at all. The world is a much different place now than it was in 2008, and that makes looking ahead to 2028 and beyond all the more unsettling. We can only hope that someone, somewhere is cooking up a little surprise to tuck away for us until then. Something to blow away the existential dread with the sheer power of its sound. Thanks to Joe and Mats, as unintentional as it may have been I needed this music right now at this moment.
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