It's in the interest of full disclosure that we begin by noting that Joseph Hess is a regular contributor to the Riverfront Times and a valuable voice in covering the local noise and experimental scenes. But Hess' work at this publication is probably the least interesting thing about him.
He has played drums in bands including Spelling Bee and Sleep State, hosted a show on KDHX (88.1 FM), kept a running tally on experimental shows in St. Louis, and booked or promoted plenty of ambitious live bills. His Undercurrent series, which hosted inventive local lineups at the Schlafly Tap Room and then issued live recordings of those shows on cassette, became a kind of live show/tape trading ouroboros in 2014.
A recent event at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation paired two of Hess' more recent musical outlets: Sun Bros -- a trio with JJ Hamon (Demon Lover, Beth Bombara) on homemade modular synthesizer and Sam Clapp (Brainstems, Strong Force) on guitar -- and the Hess/Cunningham Duo, with Alex Cunningham on violin and guitar. The event at the Pulitzer doubled as a release party for these two acts, which share an ethos as well as a drummer. Because both recordings were conceived as cassette releases, each album contains two equal-length sides. That immediately suggests both freedom and restraint: freedom from conventional song structures (or even song titles) but a strict adherence to a time limit. Both acts use the structure to expand from its starting points; whether or not the movement is complete by the end of the fifteen or twenty minutes is up to the listener to decide.
For the Hess/Cunningham Duo's Presser, the division between Side A and side B is severe. The album begins with Cunningham's clipped, scribbled violin lines that bloom and growl over time as Hess adds a scrambling counterpoint. The immediate abrasiveness of Side B -- in which Hess' drums take the lead and push around the math-rock guitar lines -- morphs into something more mysterious and delicate. Tape-hiss crackles provide the only percussion as Cunningham's guitar strokes are placed so deep in the echo chamber that one only gets a sense of their vague outlines.
Sun Bros' Biting Vines is more invitingly melodic at first pass; Clapp's guitar work shows traces of jazz discipline and jam-band discursiveness, and Hamon's synthesis manages to retain a rhythmic and harmonic center even as its edges begin to fray. Side B is a bit more searching and exotic, especially as Hess responds in kind to the would-be tribal rhythms laid down by his bandmates. As the tape rolls on, the trio finds itself falling into a pleasingly rudimentary form of drum and bass, if only for a moment.
Both releases benefit from post-production -- neither was intended as a raw document, despite the on-the-fly approach to the composition. Presser was recorded by Andy Peterson (Trauma Harness) and the processing helps give it some range, especially to Cunningham's moodier passages. Biting Vines distills two hours of music into a tight 30 minutes, and Hamon shows a typically deft hand in creating a collage that is disparate and, somehow, concise.
Listen to both below:
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