By Gary Gomes (November 2001)It seems unlikely that certain types of music will ever be popular, although there are times when they come close. Rock music has always maintained a coterie of fringe musicians who have maintained their interest in creating a unique musical vision instead of acquiescing to the current style, idiom or fashion. Absolute Zero fit into that mold.
Rock music has long been plagued by a disdain of intellectualism and instrumental technique that did not really become institutionalized until the mid-1970's. As a matter of fact, the late 1960's through the mid-1970's did show signs of public acceptance of long pieces of music, complicated harmonies and an experimental spirit. There were warning signs in the late 1960's however-when the complexity of the music of somebody like Frank Zappa became too much, along came Credence Clearwater Revival and Grand Funk Railroad. When people like Mike Oldfield, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Jethro Tull threatened to become too popular, there arose Aerosmith and Bachman Turner Overdrive. The final blow against complicated rock came in the mid-1970's however, when the punk/new wave movement rose to the surface. Backed and endorsed by journalists, anything that was more than three chords was instantly confined to the scrap heap. Groups who mimicked the Velvet Underground were okay, as long as the rhythm sections weren't overly ambitious, and the triumph of stupid, instrumentally-limited rock was complete-the advent of MTV completed the triumph of style over substance, because to be on MTV (after the initial unintended creative spurt of the early years) one had to be photogenic, pretty/handsome, and not too bright-the correct equation for the BMOC/head cheerleader popularity favored by the 1980's.
In the early 1990's, rays of hope started peaking through. Groups that had lain dormant (Collosseum, various Hatfield and the North incarnations, Gong, etc. and many others) started re-emerging from the dust bins of history, performing again. Even the newer acts seemed somewhat experimental; some of the work of groups like Soundgarden harkened back to the earlier experimentalism of groups like Pink Floyd, the Mothers, and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Groups like Amon Duul II, Faust and Captain Beefheart started drawing more attention.
But there were groups that were not so fortunate in the first round, such as Absolute Zero. Absolute Zero is an experimental, aggressive group of multi-instrumentalists who have gone through multiple personnel changes since the late 1970's in pursuit of developing a unique sound based upon the early influences of Soft Machine, Miles Davis, Jack Bruce, Daevyd Allen, Magma, Matching Mole, King Crimson (circa 1973), free jazz, avant garde classical music, Rock-in-Opposition musicians and many others.
The genesis of the group is unique. The original mastermind of the group and its founding member, is a unique and powerful bass player name Enrique Jardines. Enrique, an American of Cuban descent, became enamored of music by hearing a recording of Jack Bruce playing bass with Cream ("Spoonful") and resolved to play that instrument. He soon secured a Gibson EB-3 (the same bass that Jack Bruce played) and started working with a long series of band in his home area of Western Massachusetts. His attempts to develop a group among friends in the Springfield, MA area ended in disappointment (although the group was musically very far ahead of its time, gaining notice from luminaries like Archie Shepp), but he resolved to study music more aggressively and eventually acquired a Master's degree in composition from the Conservatory at Brooklyn College. Enrique also studied with Bill Connors, the original electric guitarist in Chick Corea's fusion group Return to Forever.
He also worked on his networking skills and journeyed to the UK where he met many of the musicians he admired so much, including Canterbury icons Dave Stewart, Caravan (with whom he auditioned as bass player, unsuccessfully), and more importantly for his later history, the late keyboard genius Alan Gowen, drummer Pip Pyle, and guitarist Phil Miller, among others. Alan and Enrique hit it off remarkably well, and, according to Pip Pyle, Alan loved Enrique's compositions and asked him to stay with him in the UK. They were just about ready to start a group when, sadly, Alan Gowen became ill with leukemia and passed away soon after.
Returning to the United States again, Enrique sought musicians who were interested in the same blend of musics that he was-people who would not be afraid to experiment, to work in collage compositional techniques, who would not be afraid to stretch their musical ideas and who would be willing to do this in exchange for picayune financial reimbursement. It was now the 1980's after all; many of the more experimental groups had folded up their tents and faded into the night. (For instance, renowned rock bassist Hugh Hopper had given up playing the bass for a year in order to pursue the rewarding occupation of taxi driver!) It was a very tough and unrewarding time to be an experimental musician. Several musicians, including trumpeter Keith Hedger (now with Konk), a guitarist and several other players, passed through the group. Paul Roger, a talented drummer with a powerouse delivery, was the one constant with Enrique through the 1980s (and through most of the 1990's).
In 1987, the group changed permanently with the addition of keyboardist/singer Aislinn Quinn. Aislinn held a Master's degree in composition from the California Institute for the Arts and is a great advocate of hard-edged contemporary music. She drove from New York to Boston to audition as the band's singer, and sang without a microphone while competing with thundering drums and a several hundred watt amplification system. After proving her worth ("walking on water" according to Enrique), she joined the group and added a new dimension to the group. While somewhat reminiscent of the vocal stylings of Dagmar Krause, the German vocalist who had sung with Henry Cow and Slapp Happy, Aislinn's vocal style is wilder and more edgy. She also treats her vocals at times through various electronic effects, such as the Vocoder, which has the effect of, at times, changing her gender, or making her sound like a demon chorus, to rather chilling and bizarre effect.
The group remained a trio of Enrique, Aislinn and Paul through most of the 1990's and they managed to put out an EXP CD Alive in the Basement in 1990, recorded on a Hi Fi VCR! Literally done without overdubs, the resulting product was a startling, raw dissonant piece of organized sound, featuring vocodered vocals, an emulator, Enrique's virtuoso base playing and Paul's controlled but violent bashing. The entire experience is extraordinarily intense, and is one of the few rock band documents that I have heard that rivals the intensity of a Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman. It is an amazing recorded document. The recording is extraordinarily dense, a remarkable feat for a three piece without overdubbing. When the group arrived at the studio to master the CD, the engineer asked where the rest of the band was-he did not believe so much sound could be produced by such a small group.
The group has extensive equipment, so performing opportunities had to cover the cost of transporting equipment at the very least. Since most experimental music jobs do not pay very much, this limited the number of gigs they were able to secure. They secured performances at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, among other locales in Boston; and in 1999, they played at the Miami Avant Garde Music festival (the largest festival of its type outside of New York City). They also toured Europe in the late 1990's and have a loyal following there.
Several glowing write-ups have appeared in print and on-line magazines through the years; yet the group was still a part time phenomenon for the band. Because of personal reasons, Paul decided to leave the band in 1999. This seemed at first to be a devastating blow-Paul had played with them for years, and knew the group's compositions inside out. Who could they find who would fit in as well?
Enrique had stayed in touch with his old friends in the U.K. and the well-respected former Hatfield and the North, Gong and In Cahoots drummer Pip Pyle was available for the job. So Absolute Zero was starting to absorb its influences. In addition, within a few months the highly regarded UK guitarist Phil Miller (Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North) joined the group. Absolute Zero was absorbing some of the people that had influenced it!
Absolute Zero is a unique blend of explosiveness, subtlety, complexity, and avant garde music, all tempered with lyrics that speak to the poor and oppressed. They hearken back to a time when music was viewed as a vehicle of social change and the thought that it was necessary to change musical perspectives in order to change society.
Absolute Zero's music is a unique blend of advanced musical techniques, virtuosi playing styles and revolutionary rhetoric. Their first mini-CD, released in 1990, consisted of two compositions, "Paradigms" and "An I to an Eye". They have recently completed their first full length CD, "Crashing Icons" and are seeking a label and distributor. Although Phil Miller is now a member of the group, he is not featured on this CD; however, some of Enrique's electronically modified bass guitar playing is actually reminiscent of Phil Miller's tone. Enrique uses the bass guitar as a lead instrument, utilizing not only a variety of electronic devices but also the considerable technique he developed through the years of practice. The electric bass is a very fluid instrument and he is firmly entrenched in passionate tradition of Jack Bruce and such later players as Janick Top and Trefor Geronsky of The Camberwell Now. Having heard Enrique in the early 1970's, I can attest to the fact that Enrique was working on this technique before Janick's recordings with Magma were ever heard in the United States. Also, Aislinn's keyboard technique, already extremely impressive in 1990, has metamorphosized into one of the most unique keyboard styles around. She is one of the few players to fully utilize all of the protean capabilities of modern electronic keyboards; and she will often do this within the context of one phrase. Her singing is very unique as well; there is a superficial similarity to Dagmar Krause, but she the use of harmonizers and electronic modifications recall some of Annette Peacock's experiments from the early 1970's but she also has a trained voice; she has studied and participated in world music, and her voice is extraordinarily powerful.
Those used to Pip Pyle's playing as being restrained and tasteful but clever will be in for a bit of a shock on the new CD. This is Pip in overdrive. I have never heard him play so aggressively or expressively as in this environment. He has stated in interviews that he actually had written music as a guide when he joined the group, but that he gradually moved away from this. In listening to this CD, I feel like I am getting the full impact of Pip's range for the first time. He sounds energized, excited and inspired. Those who may be surprised to find him in this kind of a setting-an experimental music environment-are forgetting that some of his earliest contributions to the Hatfield and the North output were extremely odd; items like "Shaving is Boring" and "The Stubbs Effect" are among the most experimental pieces recorded by that band. In recent concerts with the band, Pip has also been providing a piece that he composed with his own group that has a collage style to it, working within the sound environment that the group prefers.
The CD also features former member Keith Hedger (trumpet on two tracks) and Jim Stewart (percussion on two tracks). Keith's trumpet playing actually possesses a very cool Miles Davis-like quality, and he floats above the fray as if dancing on a tidal wave. The final track on the CD, "Suenos Sobre Un Espejo" is an incredible percussion piece, using multi-rhythms and a Latin feel, but inspired by the Absolute Zero ethic of using everything -- including the Kitchen sink.
"Bared Cross", the first piece on the Crashing Icons CD, is marked by ethereal singing, propulsive bass and drums, and keyboard work apparently inspired by a cross between the free jazz innovators, modern contemporary classical music, and the Henry Cow/Hatfield tradition. The second piece, "Further On," makes use of a texturally changing sonic environment to showcase thoughtful trumpet work. The third piece, "Stutter Rock/You Said" makes extreme use of stop and start tempos and impressive sonic variation to emphasize the group's ability to stop on a dime.
It is a little too early to tell what Phil Miller's contribution to the group will be. Enrique and Phil have been looking forward to this collaboration for quite some time. In the late '80's they were involved in Base Camp One a group that was to tour the states but Absolute Zero is a unique sonic environment. In some ways, Phil is the perfect guitarist for this group. This is a man who, to paraphrase Robert Wyatt, hates to play anything the same way twice, while possessing a rich sonic palette and an extremely advanced harmonic knowledge. These attributes will serve to expand Absolute Zero's already impressive "smorgasbord of sound" approach.
There was, in the mid-1970's, a retreat from the "maximalist" approach in music-by that I mean the willingness to experiment and increase the availability of tones, timbres, scales, and ways of organizing music. What this represented to most of us who loved experimental music was a cowardly retreat from the forward movement of music. In the 1980's, the available electronic resources expanded to ridiculous levels-yet these same resources were applied to dance music or pop songs, not to challenging the status quo of existing music. And in the 1990's, the status quo was challenged by a return to guitar trios and quartets using ideas recycled from the late 1960's. This isn't progress-this is stylistic manipulation.
Absolute Zero stands ready to challenge the assumptions of the marketplace-through breaking down barriers by using every available resource.
Absolute Zero is also a tribute to the perseverance of musicians who have followed their ideals through good times and bad, through major career setbacks and career disappointments, when less hardy souls would have called it a day. They are a tribute to Edgard Varese's "Present Day Artist." The vision of this group has endured for more than 20 years through different incarnations, and it is a credit to both Enrique's and Aislinn's spirit and determination that they are now playing with some of the most creative English musicians-Pip Pyle and Phil Miller.
Absolute Zero website: www.absolute-zero.net
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