Watchful Ear

I’ll be honest I didn’t expect to ever be surprised by AMM again. But then, maybe surprised isn’t the right word to use here. Over the last couple of decades I have never failed to be anything but awestruck when placed in front of the music of Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury, with or without Keith Rowe, but maybe I didn’t expect to find myself so struck by a new recording that it left me close to tears, which this new AMM album succeeded in doing on the second of the dozen or so times I have played it so far. Since the dissolution of the trio version of AMM just about ten years ago now the remaining duo have released a number of albums, four of them without any guest musicians. Throughout these recordings, and in the concerts I have heard them at, Prévost and Tilbury have gradually evolved their music to a point where it feels as if they are fully comfortable as a duo and instead of seeking to find a working solution for the music post-Rowe they have over the last five years or so been pushing things forward again, engaging fully in the present, the relationship between two old friends right now, the way the music shapes itself in the moment. The past isn’t forgotten but it just doesn’t matter when two musicians sit down to improvise. It really feels with Place sub.v, a new album recorded in Poland in 2012 that Prévost and Tilbury have simplified things to this degree, and have thrown themselves so deeply into each and every sound they make. This album seems to resound with a far greater intensity than the other recent AMM albums have achieved, and that really is saying something.

So what is different? This is where it gets very difficult to find the words to explain how this album has made me feel. One a purely surface level, the music is quieter, much more sparse and silence is used frequently to frame the sounds the pair make. There is a greater degree of separation to sounds. Prévost takes a huge step back from continued bowing of metal objects and varies his approach much more, rubbing the surface of a drum, working with soft, smaller sounds, allowing each contribution to hold a greater importance when separated from a massed flow. Tilbury plays, as he has on every occasion I have heard him over recent years, with an incredible intensity. He too mixes things, with the familiar AMM rising arpeggios just one small element to his contributions here that mix forlorn, romantic soloing with scraped strings, thudding wood and thunderous bass attacks. So there is greater variety in the playing, and yet it is still instantly, recognisably AMM. There is an injection of silence and stillness to much of the album, with several lengthy passages of near nothingness standing out as something we haven’t heard before. There is an intense feeling of fragility and imminent self-implosion to the music only amplified by the silences. This isn’t reductionism, quite the opposite, as when the music dissolves to its barest threads it leaves spaces fraught with an intense atmosphere. It feels as if the duo are determined to push each other towards some kind of precipice, taking the music they have been playing together for years and flooding it with risk, pushing it into precarious places and relying on one another’s immense ability to resolve a way out of it. The spaces in this music feel like occasions when it denies itself its usual get out jail free cards, forces itself away from its own comfort zones. This is incredibly powerful, gracefully humane music, but it is not comfortable music. Listening is an ordeal, a wrench through constant uncertainty, powerful gesture and unexpected response. It is exceptionally beautiful, and yet painfully difficult to engage with, every twist and turn a tug at the senses as the musicians push at each other, constantly asking questions, many of which are left unanswered, the music unfulfilled rather than placated with the usual AMM mannerisms. Here then may lay the essence of the difference with this recording compared to other recent AMM releases. Nothing sounds like it was added simply to round things out, nothing feels like an easy answer. When the music breaks down its because it has pushed itself to places beyond where it usually finds easy escape routes from.

I know that I always write about AMM with a broad degree of hyperbolic naivety, but I always write honestly, and with this new album the duo have been captured quite brilliantly making improvised music at a level that quite honestly I don’t think many other people are capable of achieving. Perhaps it was a one-off. Perhaps the unusual surroundings it was recorded in injected an uncertainty to the music, heightened the sense of danger, but I am far more inclined to see this album as the strongest moment for some time by two masterful musicians, listeners, friends, collaborators, who rather than stay rooted to the spot have chosen to push themselves, and with it their music to the furthest limits they can achieve. Simply wonderful.

Richard Pinnell — The Watchful Ear — March 2014