Most percussionists have some manner of idiosyncrasy to their kit, be it the pieces included or the general layout of the kit as a whole. Jon Mueller, though, might take the cake, known to utilize in improvisation settings a single snare drum with a cymbal lying on the head. In collaboration, most notably with other drummers, Mueller can be quite the iconoclast, using his kit to elicit drones, squeals and groans against the more noticeably percussive play of his collaborators. On a number of releases on his own excellent Crouton label, and appearances with artists like Jason Kahn, Asmus Tiechens among others, Mueller’s play is of a more minimalist variety, an extended technique that strips the drum of its bombastic nature in order to explore the intricacies of its sound-making device, the simple mechanism of a thin skin stretched over a circular frame. He uses percussion instruments, but, in many contexts, the terms “drummer” and “percussionist” have never seemed quite right as descriptors for Mueller.
Metals, however, isn’t so subtle. This disc, his first for Table of the Elements, finds Mueller delving into a style that’s far more direct than his usual, opting for something with more obvious punch than his understated improvisation as he experiments with the rudiments of heavy-metal drumming.
Those familiar with Mueller as a purveyor of extended technique will be surprised by the forcefulness on Metals, which finds its protagonist engaging in salvos of blast beats and propulsive rhythmic action. But while it's the heavy stuff that will likely garner the most attention, Mueller's focus isn't solely on the visceral muscle of the disc's most pummeling fare. Textures plays a large part in the fabric, with insistent percussion layered under washes of cymbals or packaged as merely one facet of the overall density of sound. Mueller also tends carefully to the album's use of crescendo and dynamic interplay, with "Trace Essential" and its build from slow, steady, ominous beats into a tight locomotive chug perhaps the best example. Swirling clouds of cymbal and simple electronic tones act as counterpoint to the tumult, but appear too infrequently (and, sometimes, too low in the mix) to effectively offset Mueller's heavy-metal machinations.
Metals isn't as simple an album as it might appear on first blush, but simplicity might be the disc's biggest fault. Hearing Jon Mueller play drums in a metal context is surely something new, but there's not enough in the way of ancillary sound to supplement the drums. Mueller is usually quite adept at moving beyond what one expects from percussion instruments, but Metals finds him surprisingly straightforward, and while the disc is richer than that of a metal drummer simply isolated from his mates, Mueller's approach, for all its propulsive tenacity, would have benefited from concentrating more on the textural interaction of the sounds.