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Donkey - "Show"

Odd noises greet the ear upon the arrival of the first track "Dziggetai". Then chaos ensues. "Show" is more of a sonic collage then a linear listen. But that's not to say this isn't a masterpiece. The intensely industrial sound is a heavy improv audio feast that doesn't allow the listener to get bored much like most noise collections. The machinery on "Single hitch pleasure ride" is simply amazing. "Show" is quite possibly the best experimental album of the new millennium.

     - J-Sin, Smother E-zine

Well, it was a typical Wednesday; I'd had a hard day at the boron mines, and by the time I walked in the door of my old tarpaper, I was ready to have a hearty supper of fried bark, curl up on the barbed-wire rug and watch a little Buffy before turning in. Problem was, I hadn't reckoned with the steaming ebony box that was floating at eye level in the middle of the room. No time to call Grav-Pol; I pulled out Old Betsy-Anne, cocked it, and let daylight through that sucker. Wellsir, I thought it would be my end. Colors went ricocheting 'round the room, the sound was enough to make you go deef; Earl slithered under the ottoman and didn't come out til he'd shed three skins. There wa'ant any question but that Fiendish Fjellestad was behind it. He come out of San Diego, sure, and a mighty practiced hand with them 'lectronics he is too. Works with a fellow named Holzborn, Damon to his pappy, and you probably know 'em as the Donkey gang. Here, let me cue up this grammerphone of 'em. The first track, "Dziggetai", splices the Miami Vice theme as remixed by Conrad Schnitzler with a field recording of a mechanical fly lunching on a telegraph line. Then we have a long, wide ranging piece, "Piso Mojado", that starts out with free-improv between Holzborn and a clarinet-type fellow named Matt Ingalls, bouncing notes back and forth like shuttlecocks, till Fjellestad weasels his way in, at first simply overlaying keyboard tones, but soon teakettle whistles and ventricular asystole are the order of the day. Other cuts feature glimpses at the neverending battle between drone and squiggle, audial helicopter blades that cut through a new sonic horizon, and booga to the "oh, electronic music! It's so Cold! so Unfeeling! Waah!" crowd, the excitement that the interchange of creativity and challenge these two are engaged in fairly leaps into your ear. What makes all this consistently fascinating listening is Fjellestad's complete refusal to reuse any of the same tricks; one moment his synth resembles a steel guitar note, luxuriously sprawling as the dusty plain it evokes, the next a set of chimes your three-year-old got drool all over, then an epileptic car alarm dropped in your soup pot.

     - Mike Zimbouski, Signal to Noise

Musical painters Hans Fjellestad (keyboards and electronics) and Damon Holzborn (guitars and electronics) met while composition students at the University of California San Diego. Though thoroughly trained in composition, theirs is not a dry academic style.

Having studied and performed with the likes of George Lewis, Lê Quan Ninh, Muhal Richard Abrams, Frederic Rzewski, among others, they engage in free improvisation. To be sure, there is plenty of noise and frenetic playing, but there are larger musical gestures at work here. There are some spacey electronics which bring very early Tangerine Dream to mind, not to mention the stable of I.N.A./G.R.M electronic pioneers.

The staccato and surging electronics which begin "Dziggetai" evolve and develop in engaging and compelling ways with the perfect balance of unity and variety in color, sonority, rhythm and texture."Clementine" does much the same, with undecipherable processed speech fragments, dramatic electronic sound and low-pitched guitar interjections. While you won't find yourself humming any tunes, Donkey cranks out some mighty fine noise.

     - Dean Suzuki, Progression

Donkey are Damon Holzborn and Hans Fjellestad (who also has a solo album out - see next issue) who work together as an improvisatory duo 'exploring the territory between open form and structured improvisation and noise art' using keyboards, guitar and electronics. This album is culled from 4 shows, and features guests on three tracks. 'Dziggetai' is a good opening track - it features mainly electronic exploration, chittering, woobling, shimmering jitters and abstractions, but in a playful wandering through some interesting sonic spaces. Thus it signals the unstructured nature of the album while offering a more sympathetic sound. Which is argued against in 'Piso mojado' where Donkey is (are?) joined by Matt Ingalls on clarinet. This treads a more jazz free form mode, with Holzborn focussing on some picked acoustic guitar working with the clarinet which swings between Acker Bilk sweetness and some harsher, strident tones. A change is offered by 'Clementine' where Marcus B joins in, and this short electronica piece develops around quietly bubbling synth lines, some Theremin-like squeals, modulated samples and computergenerated noises come to a grumbling conclusion. Another long improvisation in 'Salon' starts as a duel between two sets of electronics; a flittering sequence and some synthetic instruments - horns and strings sounding like a Bernard Herrmann score. The sparring continues, but with some long descending tones and percussion, becoming more contemplative and subdued, flute- and oboe-like melodies stepping through a steady drone. These simple melodies continue, accompanied by squeaking synths and guitar, before another shift into a cloud of crackling feedback, atonal stepping synths and rapidly strummed guitar. The chittering atonal guitar that starts off the 'Single hitch pleasure ride' is joined by matching keyboards, which continue at a frenetic pace for about half the track before settling into a more searching mood, which accelerates slightly towards the end through some warbly synth. They are joined again by Ingalls on violin for 'Barrel filler' which is subtle and brooding, created by a conjunction of the electronics with the violin's tone. The piece has the feel of some modern classical music. And finally an extract from a performance for a dancework, 'Oddities from the bridge' which is a more subdued, drone based ambience with squarls and woobles, reflecting the need for more stability and predictability for the dancers, and provides an extended reflective conclusion to the disk. Any free improvisation can get lost at times - the vibes which the performers, and even the audience on the night, were feeling can disappear - and the results appear like a lot of pointless noodling. Donkey have selected well and largely avoided the problem, making this a varied and engaging piece for those with a penchant for the experimental & improvisational, as you would expect from Accretions.

     - Jeremy Keens, Ampersand Etcetera

The founding members of the Trummerflora collective sweep in through the sounding space with short breaths out of unidentifiable instruments, somewhat in the vein of some wind instrument, while a sturdy rhythm grabs hold of you, moving you locomotively down the track of the CD. It's track 1; "Dziggetai". This is just keyboard and electronics, but it sounds pretty much, but then again, "electronics" can mean virtually anything... It is a scratchy, smoothly scratchy, event, shooting off in a jolting, staggering way, displaying, at times, an array of short wave sounds, like connoisseur static out of the receiver in the good old 1950s.

Track 2 - "Piso Mojado" - moves my Ernesto Diaz-Infante ear forward, 'cause that guitar picker teaming up with the Ingalls clarinet is making justice to that association. This is free form improvisation for sure, and beautifully conveyed to my rural Swedish listening space. These guys demonstrate a sensitivity of expression that naturally is in intense demand among improvisers but not always present...

"Clementine" adds turntables to the keyboards and the electronics, and the piece displays many sprawling characteristics, bordering on sound poetry, machine hall electroacoustics, Australian aborigine didgeridoo vibrations and so forth, making it completely impossible to stash this bit into any known bag, which is a very good judgment from my end, believe me! I just love stuff that cannot be categorized!

"Salon" is the longest work on the CD, starting off like some highbrow electroacoustics from the likes of Jean Schwarz and Lars-Gunnar Bodin. The spatial aspects swoop around you in the artificial woodwind sounds, and a stubborn rhythm splits the floor down the middle, baring hidden basement secrets to the unsuspecting listener. Then the guys let drops of molten metal fall from the sky, hitting the ground all around you, where the sunlight reflects of the suddenly solidifying metal, covering the surroundings with a shiny layer in a science fiction setting, where, after a while, a fairy tale melody comes piping in, until it is all crushed in some force out of the bottomless voids of space...

"Single hitch pleasure ride" opens like a Horacio Vaggione saxophone vent event, as if the closing and openings of the vents had been amply amplified and randomly dispersed across the time line. Much of this stems from the guitar, I'm pretty sure, and then the careful electronic treatment does the rest, working wonders here. Maybe this is my favorite piece on this set. Exciting! Turn the volume up!

"Barrel Filler" is no. 6. Here we enjoy the violin for the first and only good old time on the CD. It's Matt Ingalls again (he played clarinet on "Piso Mojado"). Evidently this boy has learned a few lessons from wizard and elf Malcolm Goldstein in Vermont and Montreal. How could anyone otherwise play the violin this magnificent way? It's great that Malcolm has a following in the performance practice of gifted musicians. Malcolm just recently told me he was starting to feel old, when talking about touring, so a following is necessary! The violin scrapings are appearing through a denser, revolving sound curtain of undetected depths. The violin emerges dry, while the other sounds are echoing far and wide.

The concluding work is "Oddities from the bridge", emerging in a dreamy, slithery, smeary fashion, with sharp static-like electronics scratching your neck, eventually cutting through your skull like a saw-blade, finally parting your brain-halves, falling aside like the parts of a cauliflower. It's very nice, bird-on-the-lake-like, as the ferry of Charon delivers you across the Styx to the bewildering place between lives, which you can study in the Bardo Thdol; the Tibetan Book of the Dead - or maybe this is just an everyday occurrence behind somebody's garage in the state of Wyoming; it's hard to tell!

     - Ingvar Loco Nordin, Sonoloco

Donkey are essentially a duo, Damon Holzborn on Guitar and Electronics, and Hans Fjellestad on keyboards and electronics (see above review) joined by a turntablist and a clarinettist. The duo '..explore the territory between open form and structured improvisation and noise art', well that's what it says on the c.d. liner anyway. Essentially a record of several live events the c.d. does indeed veer from the heady extremes of pure adrenaline noise to the more cerebral and chin stroking intellectual excersise that is improvisation at its most inventive. Hints of power electronics are softened by the jazzier intrusions illustrated by the colour of the clarinet. The third track 'Clementine' explores more ambient dub territories with the addition of the turntable skills of Marcus B. Delightfully analogue burbles and swoops put me in mind of John Jacques Perrey or even Pierre Henry. Whether this is a deliberate reference or just happy coincidence is for the group to know and us to find out! Where this c.d. really works is in the interplay of instrumentation and electronics, subverting the usual sounds of a jazz impro collective the electronics add depth and a rhythmic element that makes the music initially more easy to 'get into'. As with a lot of this type of work repeated listening brings new depth and areas for the ear to explore. Some pieces bring to mind the more raw and loose elements of a King Crimson concert whereas the quieter passages seem to relate to the worldview of an artist such as Scanner. Track seven 'Oddities from the bridge' is the live soundtrack to a dance piece, somehow I find that this sort of work brings out the best in a group, having to interact not only with each other but also with the physical actions and movements of a dance company. Both this and the previous disc are both challenging pieces of work that need time and thought to get the best from them. That being said, they will also reward you with a lot of pleasure and make the exploration worth while.

     - Cris Baldwin, Acid Attack Music

Remember Forrest Gump saying "Life Is Life A Box Of Chocolates"? Like him or hate him, you've gotta admit he had a point. Same goes for relatively unheard groups. Sometimes you get hard centres you just can't get into; sometimes you're left with an aftertaste which just doesn't seem right; and in most cases you get the Coffee Cream or Caramel which tastes the same throughout the known universe. With DONKEY you get something tasty, elusive and so far from those mentioned above you wonder how it could sit in the same box as its peers and is probably the result of some divine accident at the factory. With one foot in Improv Jazz, the other in wild Electronica and at least its heels dragging in the furthest point left of early European Kraut Rock, DONKEY make a music which borders on chaotic madness but never actually becomes isolated with it's own obsessions. It manages to grate on the nerves with its kitten-on-Speed explorative nature while never alienating. Instead the listener is enveloped in a mainly electronic world, an image-overloaded visit to the graveyard of electronic gear where all the ancient synths have risen, Zombie-like to show the world that they can still both shock and entertain, guts hanging out yet capable of so much more than the shiny new MIDI-wimps. It's rare you find music which so satisfyingly crosses genres, but this should equally appeal to both the Modern Improv Jazz fraternity and those into Trad Noise Industrial.

Wild yet controlled, crazy yet somehow in possession of a knowledge beyond the ken of yer average man in the street, this is much recommended. The addition of turntables, guitar, violin and most effectively clarinet only add to the panic-in-the-ant-colony music.

If only I had discovered this while I was still a teenager, it would now be a referential release, along with the likes of "2nd Annual Report".

     - Antony Burnham, Metamorphic Journeyman

Apparently the Trummerflora Collective or Zu Casa Labs, with which the two members (Hans Fjellestad and Damon Holzborn) of improvisational group Donkey (not at all to be confused with Dutch agit prop rockers Donkey) are mainly affiliated, is what's left of the San Diego experimental scene with the demise of Crash Worship and the move of the Vinyl Communication crew to San Francisco. Recorded live at the Casbah and Holly Matter, the music of Donkey is as much about post-jazz luminations on guitar and keyboards (plus some guest turntable manipulation) as it is about cascading washes of electronic sound, scraping and clanging: much like a good Stallplaat release.

The duo studied with Frederic Rzewski (a member of the legendary '60s improvisors Musica Electronica Viva) and is certainly into exploring the territory between the experimental/electronic and free-improv scenes like MEV and other groups after them, such as Voice Crack, did. Thirty years later, these two camps are still not always a happy couple together except in rare cases, like the work of analog synthesist Thomas Lehn, so when Donkey can make it work, the result is a lasting marriage.

     - Manny Themer, Groove

Hans Fjellestad is a composer and improvisational keyboardist from California. On Red Sauce Baby, Fjellestad includes composed and improvisational pieces, playing solo piano works, piano duets, and full ensemble tracks. Donkey is a duo project consisting of Fjellestad and guitarist Damon Holzborn, who also guests on Red Sauce Baby. Both are founding members of Trummerflora, a collective of musicians dedicated to experimental and improvisational music, and host the Zu Casa web site. Zu Casa, in particular, is a phenomenal web site, full of information and full length CDs available to listen to in RealAudio, including the two reviewed here.

Several of the tracks on Hans Fjellestad's Red Sauce Baby are focused on the piano. "Slow Motion Perp Walk" is a solo piece with Fjellestad on piano, ambient recordings, and electronics. There's a narration that gives the music an urban film noir feel, the sounds of the city surrounded by atmospherics and light jazzy piano bits. "Gadfly Principle" is another solo with Fjellestad on prepared piano. A somewhat theatrical piece, it combines standard piano with a variety of other sounds, many percussive. Both the ivories and the inner workings of the piano are attacked, raked, and played, to produce a quirky, but intense composition that runs a gamut of emotions while displaying impressive instrumental proficiency. "Three Sockets" made me think of Gershwin performing in a dark, freaked out cabaret. And "Zoonomia I & II" are two piano duos with Fjellestad and Dana Reason. Enjoyable but not among the more exciting tracks on the album.

Overall, though, it was the tracks with a larger cast of musicians that turned me on the most. "Free Throw Prophet" includes a full band with church organ, woodwinds, bagpipes, and percussion. Hearing the traditional Scottish bagpipes abruptly followed by the free-wheeling sonic jazz of the woodwinds and percussion is a jarring experience. At times I'm reminded of the Sun Ra Arkestra at its most freeform, while at others it's an experimental jazz carnival freakout. A beautiful track. "Pulp451" consists of accordion, percussion, synths, electronics, and trombone, united for a free-for-all workout of mostly dancing strings and electronic patterns that range from radio wave sounds to subtle ambient drones. A spoken word monolog in Danish and part chanting, part whining female voice accompany. An interesting effort but it didn't really hold my attention throughout. Finally, "Uncouth Vermouth" is my favorite track on the album, with Fjellestad on organ, his partner in Donkey, Damon Holzborn, on electric guitar, plus clarinet and saxophone. Get down and dig the wailing, blazing free-jazz horns, freakout organ la Sun Ra, and frenetic guitar runs. The track runs through a number of distinct themes, but in all it's 9 minutes of killer experimental rockin' free-jazz. LOVE that organ!

Donkey consists of Hans Fjellestad on keyboards and electronics and Damon Holzborn on guitars and electronics, with guests on clarinet, violin, turntables, and electronics. The promo sheet describes Donkey as an electroacoustic improvisation duo exploring the territory between open form and structured improvisation and noise art, and Show is a collection of live performances. What struck me after a few listens was how electronic space, noise, jazz, and avant-rock meet across these tracks at a crossroads that defies easy labels and genres.

Tracks like "Dziggetai", Oddities From The Bridge", and "Single Hitch Pleasure Ride" are sonic roller coaster rides into an electronic noise realm with pulsating and rumbling waves, tones, and drones. Oddities has some wonderfully bizarre space electronics, and Single Hitch incorporates bits of Blues and has lots of slam-bang percussion. For "Piso Mojado" the duo are joined by clarinet for a freeform avant jazz jam. Clarinet and guitar duel with one another, backed by ocean wave electronics and drones. Whimsically freaky, but beautifully executed, the music demands the listener's attention, yet the reward is a strangely lulling experience. "Clementine" is an interesting track that straddles the line between avant garde jazz, Rock In Opposition experimentalism, and space electronics. Easily my favorite track is "Salon", an INTENSE orchestrated electro freakout! Tension builds quickly and kept me bug-eyed and white knuckled as I clutched my seat throughout. This would make a great soundtrack to an avant-garde mystery flick. It starts with the scene where the poor girl is running like hell from the killer. But things soon settle into a dark, eerie, melodramatic segment in which the mystery evolves into horror and suspense. Just beautiful. "Barrel Filler" is a similarly dark and intense orchestral piece. Like a full orchestra Kronos Quartet.

In summary, it's clear from these two recordings that both Fjellestad and Holzborn have varied interests, and perusing the web sites below I see they have numerous releases available. Red Sauce Baby had a lot of variety and the strong tracks were impressive, though there were others that didn't excite me much. Donkey might be the best place for Aural Innovations readers to start, especially if you're into experimental electronics.

     - Jerry Kranitz, Aural Innovations


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