Sunburned Hand Of The Man - "Nice Butterfly Mask" (Fire Escape)
The amorphous Massachusetts collective Sunburned Hand of the Man has never been easy to predict, comprehend or justify. Their wandering weirdness is strewn across a decade long discography of CD-Rs and tapes on a variety of imprints (including their own Manhand label), smacking each new release with an altered dose of droning improv and stoner excursions, ever-morphing to embody the output of whatever instruments (read: objects) happened to be lying around and whoever was there to play them. One can usually count on founding members John Moloney and Rob Thomas to produce some Can-like grooves to anchor the sound now and again as other collaborators pluck notes out of thin air, raising cacophony with disorienting determination. Their music (and relevance) thrives on the cosmic, the infinite, the continuous cloud of ideas that hovers thick around everything, waiting to be lackadaisically harnessed and channeled through a broken synthesizer. The legitimacy of such an approach to music-making is debatable, but the concept is respectable enough, and Sunburned have proven they can usually siphon shards of brilliance somewhere out of the always-running analog Tascam.
At first glance, Fire Escape appears to be the latest crop of the group's recordings. It's their first for Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound and second studio full-length this year, following their paranoid noise rock excursion for Ecstatic Peace, Z. Upon further inspection, the album goes beyond the group's usual jam highlights, yielding a concentrated studio session with electronic musician and laptop whizkid Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), as the conductor - arranging the musicians, editing the material and creating his own version of a SHOTM record. The relationship isn't without its history, as Hebden has been a fan of the group since he read The Wire's "New Weird America" article in 2003, subsequently absorbing the group's lengthy discography and eventually touring with them in 2004. He invited several members to his London studio in March of 2006 for this recording, which also features psychedelic brethren Michael Flower and Bridget Hayden of Vibracathedral Orchestra and Keith Wood of Hush Arbors. Hebden played curator and instructed the musicians on what and when to play over the course of a four-hour session, directing their instrumentation and allowing them to improvise over his suggestions. An interesting concept, considering Hebden's studio guidance seems to contradict much of the off-the-cuff aesthetic that the group tries to embody. So how does one approach this release when the group's usual method of conception has been completely rearranged and assembled? Is the relevance of Sunburned's shamanistic improv compromised when its elements are orchestrated by an outside artist?
It's a tough line to draw. Methods and intentions aside though, Fire Escape emerges rather successfully. Hebden's handywork is evident throughout the record, obvious even from the album's opening spurts of chopped static that gives way to "Nice Butterfly Mask" – a funky fun house of panned horn blasts and aqua-bass. The payoff of Hebden's oversight shines best on the album's title track, which snakes devilishly with a sense of purpose, grooving with a host of smeared bells and injected electronics. Trademark SHOTM tricks are established as well. "The Wind Has Ears" smells the most like a bare-bones Sunburned jam, with stumbled nonsense grumbles and tumbling whistles amid sparse drumming and electronic hiccups. It's not like Hebden turned a blind eye to the group's intentions and imposed his own approaches on technique. Rather, he provides a path for the group to embark, nudging them along the way and keeping the sound solidified.
Fire Escape is easily the most accessible Sunburned release to date, neatly colored with digital prickles and an underlying motive. The individual elements are well-recorded and identifiable, dripping with a digital twist and sheared clean – a departure from their usually murky freak-outs often recorded in lofts, living rooms or wherever the appropriate equipment was available. It's actually refreshing to hear the band exposed in this light, with the proper facilities provided and a loose organization permeating the musical shambles. But again, such structure and clearly staked purpose aren't exactly the Dada pinnacle that SHOTM normally seek, and listeners charmed by the imprecise, yet honest aspect of the traditional Sunburned sound might raise an eyebrow.