When The Thing announced a long break in March last year it was sad news for fans like me. But actually it was a miracle that the band have kept up their concept at such a high quality level for 20 years. The question remained which other bands could fill the gap left by The Thing. Of course there is Dave Rempis’s trios Ballister (with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Paal Nilssen-Love) and Kuzu (with Tashi Dorji and Tyler Damon), whose sheer energy could always have matched with the Scandinavian powerhouse. Fire!, Mats Gustafsson’s other free rock project with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin, are another candidate that comes to mind, as well as DKV (Hamid Drake, Kent Kessler and Ken Vandermark), the last one certainly the “jazziest“ trio of all the ones mentioned. However, if you’re looking for a less obvious alternative, you might check out Gorilla Mask.
The band is part of the busy Echtzeit music scene in Berlin. Canadian expat Peter Van Huffel (alto and baritone saxophones) has formed Gorilla Mask with Roland Fidezius (electric bass) and Rudi Fischerlehner (drums, percussion) in 2010 and from the very beginning they have been working the no man’s land between punk, avant-garde jazz and prog rock. Brain Drain ist their fourth album, after Howl! (Between The Lines), Bite My Blues and Iron Lung (both on Clean Feed).
If you listen to a new track like “Caught In A Helicopter Blade“ it seems logical to compare them with The Thing, yet it does them justice only on the surface. Gorilla Mask are less muscular, therefore they are rather rooted in modern jazz. On their former albums they often opened their tracks with heads that are rhythmically in unison, while they are slightly askew as far as the melody is concerned. Rhythm and melody have remained an integral part of their music on Brain Drain, but in a different, less foreseeable way. Especially Fidezius’s effect-laden, playful bass reminds me of King Crimson (often he treats the bass like a guitar) and Fischerlehner’s intricate drumming is both propulsive and sonorous. On “Rampage“, the album’s opener, this is paired with a fiery Ornette-Coleman-like alto head. Then, out of the blue, Peter Van Huffel just drops out after the introduction in order to leave the field for Fidezius’s fuzz-bass solo. Surprise, subtlety, unconventionality and quieter moments define their approach. The best example on the album is “Drum Song”, which is dominated by Fischerlehner’s jungle rhythms. His rather abstract and puzzling grooves prepare a dense net in which Van Duffel and Fidezius create intense drones and floating surfaces before they sink the piece in a maelstrom. Van Huffel’s electrified saxes used for “Caught In A Helicopter Blade” and the title track and the overdubs in “Hoser“ (a real rocker, by the way) show another key element of the Gorilla Mask sound: the extensive use a lot of effects (Fidezius has an impressive arsenal at hand, too) and extended materials (Fischerlehner’s sticks, gongs, chains etc.), are responsible for a rich and varied sound palette.
Brain Drain is a very good album but if you have the chance you should see the band live. Their rampant improvisations are even more developed and lush than on the album, in a weird way they reminded me of Grateful Dead. In concert the compositions are rather used as a framework in which the improvisations are able to escalate marvelously.