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Stephen O’Malley & Steve Noble - St. Francis Duo

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Artist: Stephen O’Malley & Steve Noble

Album: St. Francis Duo

Label: Bo'Weavil

Review date: Jun. 28, 2012

In Sunn 0))), Stephen O’Malley dons a druidic robe. The back cover of St. Francis Duo depicts an empty robe, which is as good a way as any of suggesting that he’s shed his metal raiments for this improvisational encounter with English percussionist Stephen Noble. And while he hasn’t renounced his proclivity for rugged rumbling, he’s jettisoned metal’s most comfortable conventions. There are no obvious tunes, no evenly paced chug, very few steady beats, and certainly no words to tell you what to think. Instead there are 76 minutes of sparring between O’Malley’s craggy electric guitar and Noble’s purposeful perigrinations around his drum kit.

Flip to the front of the gatefold sleeve (this being an O’Malley design, it’s striking and radiates dark atmosphere) and you’ll see window in a thick brick wall that is pierced by tree roots and wrapped in branches and ivy. This is a fair representation of the duo’s dynamic. O’Malley is the rock, his chords and notes big and solid, but crumbling around the edges. His playing stands its ground; it does not move. Noble flays that surface like gail-driven limbs and erodes the foundation the way a tree’s underground growth might undo your basement. Their interaction isn’t always adversarial, but it usually involves methods whose differences are absolute and elemental. O’Malley’s playing is all about asserting presence and establishing atmosphere; displays of chops just aren’t part of the equation. Noble, a two-decade veteran of London’s free improv scene who has worked with Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill and Alex Ward, is at ease with his own virtuosity. His playing here is typically spectacular, but he and O’Malley often seem to be conversing in different dialects. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; from the Louvin Brothers to Von Sudenfed, clashing values and temperaments have often made great music. The black hole energy of this stuff scratches an itch that has been wanting for attention since Fushitsusha’s early days.

But I’m still thinking about that robe. O’Malley got the picture from an old illustration of one worn by St. Francis of Asissi, and the choice to name this encounter St. Francis Duo makes the image into a symbol worth trying to decode. St. Francis was born to wealth, enjoyed it, and then renounced worldly goods and privilege in order to be closer to God. The Franciscans take a vow of poverty; so what’s that got to do with this record? Certainly nothing to do with its sumptuous art work, which is quite fetish-worthy in the pricy vinyl edition. The CD’s smaller sleeve is still quite lovely, if a bit demanding of the eyes. Is O’Malley saying that he has renounced metal, and that the inherent impecunity of improv music is a holy path? The text on the sleeve and the music within are mute on this matter. Stay tuned.

By Bill Meyer

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