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Ekkehard Ehlers - A Life Without Fear

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Artist: Ekkehard Ehlers

Album: A Life Without Fear

Label: Staubgold

Review date: Jun. 11, 2006

German electronic composer Ekkehard Ehlers has never shied away from refractions, using much of his back catalogue as a sounding board upon which to project in-depth examinations of the sounds and styles that have influenced his views on music, its creation and performance. Be it through sampling Albert Ayler, plying Robert Johnson tunes with gentle house rhythms, or recontextualizing string pieces originally commissioned for William Forsyth dances, Ehlers' work has always displayed a desire to dialogue with sounds and sources, to explore the ways in which they intertwine during his creative process before emerging as something wholly new.

That A Life Without Fear could be categorized as Ehlers' blues record, then, is hardly surprising considering the tip of the cap he offered to Johnson as one of the five brilliant minds he profiled with his stunning Plays series. But unlike his previous work, Ehlers’ approach of the blues here balances abstraction with straightforward homage. He uses guitarist Joseph Suchy and vocalist Howard Katz Fireheart to help explore the nature and meaning of the blues on a series of tracks that build into raw, rugged but modern songs.

The album begins with an unabashedly earnest take on the traditional ballad "Ain't No Grave,” with Suchy's slurred phrasing wrapping itself around Fireheart's voiced lament and Ehlers bleak rumblings, and announces the ideological thrust of what's to come. Followed by "Frozen Absicht," the blues here become more of an implication, a thread gradually pulled from the pre-war strum of the Old Weird Americans until the style exists not as exact song, but as a still-heavy series of hints. "Nie wider schnell sagen" takes a somber, droned harmonica as its starting point but stretches out quickly, embracing an almost playfully dour melody that fights for breathing room as the held tone saws back and forth. In boiling it all down to base elements (the strum of a guitar, the whisper of a voice), Ehlers pursues an examination of the actual construction of the blues, a deep probing of the natures and complexities of the beast and its myriad of ghosts

Ehlers has always been the type to subvert traditional notions of songwriting with his sampling tendencies, and as such it isn't really surprising when he lets a scratchy cut of Charles Haffer, Jr.'s ragged tune "Strange Things" play uncut, buttressed by some unobtrusive Suchy guitar work and more of Ehlers' processing. This inclusion addresses a few key issues – the appropriation of the African American song form for sure, but also perhaps the ways in which traditional tracks managed to permeate completely different communities and come out forever changed by the singers and players in those towns. Even more intriguing is the lyrical content, a back and forth Great War dialogue between Wilson and the Kaiser. Is it just a simple transposition of an older lament onto the face of current conflict, or perhaps a sly defense on the part of a German guy pulling apart a fundamentally American type of music?

As American as the blues may be, the pathos that inspires them is something felt worldwide. Ehlers explores this idea by tracing the Diaspora back to its roots, switching Suchy to the balafon and Fireheart to the Shona language for a take on Dumisani Abraham Maraire's "Misorodzi." It's a curious move, but the plink of the instrument's rosewood keys resonate with a type of hymnal phrasing that makes the connection work. "Maria & Martha," however, returns immediately to the abstract realms, with Suchy's guitar pulled into taut drones alongside Franz Hautzinger's trumpet, affecting a transformation of the death chants that have so influenced Ehlers into a ruddy series of mourning drones and processed tones.

Closing with an almost barren look at Ralph Stanley's "O Death," A Life Without Fear ends on a note that implies not an acceptance of the forces that smother humanity, but a rather venomous lashing out at them. Here Fireheart's voice is enflamed, the guitars overdriven and distorted, in all a rather stirring summation of the ideas Ehlers explores throughout A Life Without Fear. As much as the man himself is possessed by the sense of doom that pervades the music he pays tribute to here, Ehlers dwells not on the destruction. Instead, he seems far more intent on examining another unforeseen direction for both his own distinct sound and a type of music that profound thinkers have been wrestling with for ages.

By Michael Crumsho

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