Say what you want about how hard guitars rock or the brutality of power electronics, they’ve got nothing on bagpipes. Aside from drums, what instrument is more associated with bloodshed and battlefield terror? The mere sound of them has been known to make soldiers break ranks and run. The Highlander regiments were some of the most feared in the Queen’s Army; when they said take no prisoners, they weren’t talking about Lou Reed’s comedy album, and they didn’t just slay ‘em in the aisles. New Zealand-born, New York-based David Watson has played the pipes in marching bands and kept his chops up playing dance tunes; he knows his instrument’s history. He’s also a longtime denizen of New York’s downtown improv scene, where he’s played both guitar and pipes with Lee Ranaldo, Cyro Baptista, and Shelley Hirsch, as well as celebrated out-of-towners like Günter Müller and fellow antipodean Tony Buck.
Throatswas recorded in 2001 and 2002, but took half a decade to inch to the top of Ecstatic Peace’s release schedule. Thus it has more to do with his late-’90s recordings than with Fingering An Idea, his contemporaneously released effort for XI. It is conceived as a more intimate affair than Watson’s preceding efforts with bands and drum corps. This album is split between pipe-only pieces and performances, mostly fairly brief, with singers Shelley Hirsch and Makigami Koichi (Makigami Ayako contributes jaw harp on one of its 14 tracks). Still, it’s not exactly unplugged. Although Watson asserts that the music comes from acoustic sources, it sounds like there is some processing and overdubbing, and the liner notes admit to one “fuzz box moment.” His playing runs the gamut from good old-fashioned, loud as hell drones, albeit ones that owe as much to Phill Niblock as to pibroch , to the sort of extended techniques you’d expect from a player who has shared a stage with John Butcher .
“Queen Jealousy” nicely represents the former. It’s as in your face as a walked-into wall, and just as dense, with held tones whose interference with each other turns that which seems solid into a writhing flux if you crank it loud enough. “Pneumothorax,” on the other hand, is a short symphony of hiss that strays into Axel Dörner territory before resolving into a low hum that sounds suspiciously like an old propeller-driven airplane heard through the window.
Although it was conceived as a singer’s record, Throats’ unaccompanied tracks are the most approachable. The mileage you get from Shelley Hirsch’s three appearances will depend on your appreciation for extended vocalese. Personally I have a hard time with the stuff, but there’s no denying Hirsch’s exacting control over her instrument, nor that in tandem with bagpipes in full-blast mode, you’ve got a sure-fire cure for torpid neck hairs. But Makigami Koichi’s throat singing pairs quite naturally with the pipes. His gravelly growl layers within the enveloping, bellows-driven blare to bracing effect. Throw in some virtuoso jaw’s harp on “Pool” and the psychedelic swirl is quite overwhelming.