September 1962: jazz legends Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach gather in New York City for a session that sets the standard for the jazz trio. Their Money Jungle session is a master class in performance in which the musicians improvise off each other rather than giving one player the solo spotlight. The influential work is a synthesis of two members of the new guard (Mingus and Roach) and a composer more known for his big band style.
Duke’s trio was striving to express the zeitgeist. Jungle‘s release is an artifact of political and social (not to mention musical) instability, presaging the approaching tumult of the latter sixties. The songs not only emerged from this unrest, but provided the spark for each trio member to delve into more racially-conscious work. Duke would create his historical African saga Black, Brown and Beige, Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um would directly point to an Arkansas governor calling on the national guard to prevent black children from entering a white school, and Roach’s classic We Insist! was inspired by the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and featured several lyrical ballads about slavery.
By the sixties, jazz’s golden age was a distant memory. The rock revolution would soon dethrone jazz’s technical, theoretical backbone in favor of its simplified, accessible sound. For the rest of the century, rock would be scrutinized and simplified, dismantled and destructed. Surviving punk, new wave, grunge, and its leftfield “post” stage, rock provided decades of endless possibilities. Even today, rock is still being pushed further, coming full circle with the “brutal jazz” sound of Switzerland’s Schnellertollermeier (STM for short). Sonically, the band is as far from Duke’s trio as one could get, but Andi Schnellmann (bass), Manuel Troller (guitar) and David Meier (drums) have learned from Jungle‘s cohesive unit of playing as a single instrument. They’re exploring jazz’s complex intricacies, melodies and dynamics within rock’s muscular impact. It’s an update, but also a rebellion.
Troller corroborates the methodology. “The idea that the whole band can sound like one organism evolved in the process of writing [our third LP] X. Soloing, which happens in jazz a lot, is not really important to us anymore. Before X we had pieces that had completely freely improvised parts in it. Now it’s more about precision and dynamics, interplay and energy.”
While the crossover genre appeal of their sound enables the band to play both in open-minded jazz and rock festivals, the brutal jazz term is also problematic. There are no other brutal jazz bands, and a band cannot be a genre unto themselves. It begs the question of why STM isn’t simply post-rock. After all, STM ties to the long metal instrumentals of Russian Circles and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but also to the math structures of traditional piano trio Gogo Penguin, and Jersey Band, a jazzy project that replaces guitars with blaring brass.
For all the post-rock overtones on their records, the band’s more likely to listen to John Cage than King Crimson. All three band members studied at the School of Music Lucerne, and interpolate strong theoretical jazz ideas through their playing. Schnellmann, Troller and Meier also regularly hone their chops with other experimental jazz bands. The brutal jazz moniker then, only provides a framework through which to consider their musical tradition.
Take the title cut from X, a twenty-minute, four-movement colossus. Across a decade-long career and the four years it took to complete the album, ‘X’ is STM’s crowning achievement. The track’s central opening device wonders how far a dissonant three-note guitar phrase can be extended. Schnellmann plays two leading notes on bass, but the melody line ends with Troller’s guitar, traversing both instruments. The effect makes it harder for the listener to separate the instruments. Meier propels the whole thing forward with an insane, caffeinated rhythm. By emphasizing the short structure with a succession of down beats, the pulse builds as the tense melody is highlighted or retreated. The sound is forceful, yet the opening contains a sense of play throughout – echoes of Duke’s trio connecting and departing with each other.
The drums maintain their frenzy until a slight breakdown just three and a half minutes in, foreshadowing the second movement. This bit sounds impossible, as if it were created through studio cutting and pasting, an unhinged, brutal passage in danger of tearing the song apart at its seams.
But it holds, and four minutes in, we’ve reached a new plateau, where Meier seems to be playing with an extra set of hands. Schnellmann breaks free with a walking bass line. The breakdown reenters, threatening the momentum. Meier plays tight snare rushes, while Troller is still trapped in the two-note phrase, now more jarring and ringing than at the start of the track.
Six minutes in: a huge release of tension, a reprieve for the ears. If the past six minutes was the rocket blasting off, the next five is the rocket coasting in space. Troller’s guitar becomes an ambient pad of infinite sustain, warbling through an oscillator. Underneath, Meier can be heard switching his drumsticks. Many engineers would have opted to cut these elements, but the decision to retain these imperfections provides a clue as to what’s next: an impressionistic valley acting as a freeform soundscape, no doubt indebted to Coleman’s and Coltrane’s free jazz experiments. The bass rolls, cracks and lunges; the percussion rings, snaps and pops; the guitar maintains the drone bedding. Unlike the first movement, where time seemed to be quickening, here it’s at a standstill. The elements dipping in and out create interest in their sheer minimalism; though the beat has been discarded, there seems to be an order to the chaos the listener is not privy to. The band toys with how far they can push this nadir and still come up with something engaging.
‘X’s’ third movement is a machine winding back up, where slow guitar notes compete against fast stuttering snares and cymbal crashes. An overdubbed guitar emphasizing a different two-note pattern rises to the front of the mix, adding to the cacophony. The guitar builds to a shimmering, ringing climax as the bass notes pound out a dirge.
This all decays to the fourth section, an introspective late-night jam containing a pedal steel-sounding guitar timbre. Screeching cymbal scrapes call out in the background. This jolts into an intricate section filled with the noodling of as many notes as possible, executed in a random, disjointed manner. It is the least groove-based part of the song and the most chaotic, yet manages to show yet another playing technique. ‘X’ stands as the ultimate calling card for a band versed in various styles and eager to showcase them.
If ‘X’ is a quadtych, the following track ‘Backyard Lipstick’ is a sketch, a sonic reset, making use of those spinning, whistling plastic toys from our childhoods. A curious tribal beat carries the proceedings, but at only two minutes, it’s largely a forgettable track. Another sketch, ‘Sing For Me,’ pitting stringed instruments against creaking power tools, is more successful. The bombast is back on ‘Riot,’ with maximal thrashing interrupting Man or Astro-Man?-style guitar melodies. The track bounces between several melodic states in a schizophrenic daze, cranking the brutality of the noise even further. However, more isn’t always more, and though the track is louder it still lacks the punch of the album opener. While these tracks may stand on their own, the behemoth opener sets the stage for grand things to come, which just can’t be equalled by shorter tracks that explore less space.
‘Massacre du Printemps’ comes the closest though, opting for a doom metal approach to brutal jazz and taking its time stretching out over eight minutes, while closer ‘///\\\///’ seems to use almost an exact phrase from ‘Massacre’ to build out a layered guitar exploration that explodes into a glorious, satisfying triumph to end the record on a high note.
X, the unknown variable from algebra class, can be understood once all the surrounding math is simplified. X represents our first encounter with mathematical abstraction, the entrance point for a logic beyond counting on our fingers and performing long division. It is also where we begin to assert that we’re not “math people.” Similarly, many may not be “brutal jazz people.” While the designation provides a point of intrigue for new listeners, the band may simply be staking the label out for themselves before journalists, in categorizing the ephemeral nature of music, pigeonhole them to a subgenre.
After a recent live show, Troller asks if the performance was brutal enough for me. The set was an energized, exciting, tumultuous din – in other words, a bit brutal. But it was also just plain good fun.
X is available now on Cuneiform Records.