Keiji Haino & SUMAC – American Dollar Bill:
Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On Album Review

The legendary Japanese multi-instrumentalist Keiji Haino has always been a prime figure in the experimental, free-rock, improvisation realm. His collaborations with other prominent artists have always been enticing and forward thinking, be it with krautrock masters Faust, fellow Japanese heavy experimentalists Boris, drone overlord Stephen O’Malley or jazz aficionados like John Zorn and Peter Brotzmann. For his latest collaborative release, Haino finds the perfect co-conspirators in experimental sludge trio SUMAC, the band of extreme music heavyweights Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom), Brian Cook (Russian Circles) and Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists). Given the history of the band members it is clear that their sonic adventures individually, as well as a group, are highly compatible with Haino uncompromising vision of heavy music. Especially considering the evolution of SUMAC from debut record, The Deal, to What One Becomes, which found them stepping more firmly on the freestyle world in tracks like “Blackout.”

For American Dollar Bill the two entities met at Goksound studio in Tokyo, without having rehearsed any music together, leading to the release of these completely improvised sessions. And so the weight of SUMAC meets with Haino’s free flow of expression, providing the heavy structures originating from Cook’s and Turner’s ferocious playing and Yacyshyn’s fluid drumming. The sludge-induced moments of the record speak of SUMAC’s domain, resulting in a heavy, lucid and constantly evolving sound.

On the other end, Haino’s presence provides an additional layer of unpredictability to the performance, especially when it comes to his vocal delivery. Altering through many different styles, his voice always acts as a point of reference amidst the chaos of the instrumentation. It can be a soft and almost sweet narrative tone that will act as a beacon in the stripped down parts, but it can also arrive in a much direct and urgent manner. The level of intensity Haino applies alters depending on the impact he wants to deliver. From the softer moments he switches to a raspy, cutthroat tone and in that non-linear process he adds greatly to the volatility of this work. It is a similar perspective he takes with his guitar playing in American Dollar Bill, where the unpredictable arrangements he delivers an awkward and demented injection to the heavy structures.

As is the case with all records Haino is a part of, so is the case with the American Dollar Bill, in that it is a work that revels in chaos. Considering the aptitude of SUMAC in sound crafting and audio effects usage the final offering inherits all the extreme edge and relentless approach when it comes to audio manipulation. The beating of “What Have I Done? (Part I)” is an exemplar moment of this chaotic nature, not only in the implementation of the loose structures, but also in the manner that it enhances its effectiveness through a thick wall of sound approach.

But chaos does not need to exist only in the heavy outbreaks of the album. All the participants have a good grasp of minimalism and understand how to mould the soundscapes, generated through feedback or audio effects. The opening track for instance dissolves from its heavy form, filled with pummeling drums and huge riffs, to a minimal, drone-like state. The guitar notes find their way into the stripped down environment, accompanied by Haino’s crazed performance, while the sonic manipulation opens up the space. Then, there is also the smooth quality that comes into play, where Haino and SUMAC experiment with laid back structures in the stunning first part of “I’m Over 137%”. The infernal atmosphere that these parts are able to conjure is astounding, and it also ties nicely to the hazier moments of the record with the ending of “I’m Over 137% (Part II)” which also washes over “What Have I Done? (Part II)”, opening up a new acidic world for American Dollar Bill.

Through the various modes of this terrifying vision, Haino and SUMAC deliver an excellent record filled with an unyielding experimental spirit. From the free-rock perspective and the sludge structures, the four musicians expand their scope to minimalism and psychedelia, resulting in a wicked trip through heavy instrumentation and demonic performance.

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Sound engineer, sonic manipulator, record hunter and writer/contributor for a variety of webzines.

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