Glenn Kotche - Mobile

"‘Some of these pieces are also rooted in linearly stretching or expanding something rhythmic as a basis for musical elaboration.' Blimey, you might be forgiven for thinking. This might be awful, but it is unlikely to sound like a Roger Taylor solo album."

Glenn Kotche – Mobile


 


If you know the name at all it will be most likely due to his drumming with Wilco but Glenn Kotche is not just a jobbing rock drummer. No, Glenn has far more strings to his bow than that, to use a nearly appropriate analogy. His work with Wilco is but one end (the mainstream end) of a wide variety of work that might well mystify those that think Wilco have gone a bit weird lately and why did they have that long drone on the last album? Mobile, I feel duty bound to tell you, is an album made purely from percussion instruments. It is not a solo drum album – surely this would strike fear into the heart of most good people – but it is equally not a million miles away from one. But before one thinks of Phil Collins pounding a load of drums for forty minutes – Christ – drummers such as Kotche and Chris Corsano (Sunburned Hand of the Man etc.) are capable of generating some pretty incredible sounds from their kit. Anyway, this album is on Warner's' highbrow imprint Nonesuch and Kotche isn't interested in just laying down some beats. As he puts it: 'Throughout the record I investigate the idea of negative or opposite rhythm by utilizing the intrinsic spaces – or rests – of rhythms.' And: 'Some of these pieces are also rooted in linearly stretching or expanding something rhythmic as a basis for musical elaboration.' Blimey, you might be forgiven for thinking. This might be awful, but it is unlikely to sound like a Roger Taylor solo album.


 


The words solo drumming might occasion horror but they might also occasion thoughts of the great minimalist composer Steve Reich. Apposite, then, that the album kicks off with Clapping Music Variations, a piece directly inspired by Reich's 1972 piece Clapping Music. The track kicks off with some clapping and clanging and what sounds like a typewriter. Then we get the xylophone* and the piece suddenly sounds very Reichian indeed –densely locked patterns of sound building in rhythmic intensity. A beat builds behind the xylophone, disappears and then returns again, this time with much more urgency. Then we have some bowls and bells being hit it all sounds pretty bloody good.


 


Mobile Parts 1, 2 and 3 continue the Reichian theme. The songs are based on melodies played on a kalimba (the sound is similar at times to a harp, at others closer to a strangely tuned guitar). Played over it are what sounds like voices treated to sound like keyboards, a piano and finally the drums. Like the first track this is not necessary foot-tapping music but it is music with a very strong rhythm and it is music with a structure and purpose – it is not a collection of sounds, rather it is the opposite of random and indulgent footling. These three tracks might feel like a collection of basic repetitions that go nowhere but it is not the case at all. The tracks are constantly on the move and anyone who likes Steve Reich's work (and the minimalist composers in general) will find much to enjoy here. In fact, by the time we get to Part 3 the track becomes identifiably rocky – it features cymbal crashes that sound like steel wire lashing out, a real beat and a piano almost delineating a melody. Projections of (what) Might kicks off sounding like a techno track – a basic but harsh drum machine beat works away like a sledgehammer whilst other elements occasionally are laid over it. This track certainly grates if you don't go along with it and is not recommended for anyone with a headache.


 


We then come to the album's central track and boy is it a doozie. It is called Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit and what you get is the retelling, through percussion, of the monkey army's battle from the Hindu epic Ramayana. For example: one character is represented by the hi-hat, another by 'large pull-strings on the snare head'. Included is a breakdown of the characters and the story so that you can follow it as the track progresses. I confess that I struggled here but the end result isn't as wanky as the above might suggest. After the improvisational feel of Monkey Chant we come to a track that highlights the many faces of Kotche. On Reductions or Imitations Kotche takes the drumbeats from The Late Greats (from the last Wilco album) and mixes them up with What I Don't Believe by the Minus Five. The beats are initially transferred to piano and are recognisable even though there appears to be a piano key that keeps getting stuck and interrupting the flow of the song. Cymbals tinkle and other percussion is added and whilst the Wilco song is always there it always remains tantalisingly out of reach. As soon as it is spotted it changes into something else. Individual Trains sounds a bit like a bag of sand falling down a metal staircase littered with knives and forks. I cannot recommend it. Which brings us to Fantasy on a Shona Theme for Solo Vibraphone. And jolly nice it is too, like an ice cream at the end of a big meal. Light and airy, it floats along and brings the album to a serene close. Mobile, then, is not an album for everyone. At the same time it is far more accessible than it first appears and anyone with a curious bent would be well advised to track it down.


 


* Any references to xylophones should be treated with caution. The instrument could just as well be a glockenspiel or a vibraphone or something else altogether for all I know.


 


Words: Chris Dawson.