Blast / Blast 4tet

Sift

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On the Blast 4tet's 2008 release, Sift, the band generally continues along the same path as 2003's Altrastrata; both discs were released by ReR after Blast spent much of the '90s on Cuneiform, and Sift and Altrastrata feature the same Dutch/Swiss/Italian lineup as well -- mainstays Dirk Bruinsma on baritone and soprano saxes and Frank Crijns on electric guitar, joined by Paed Conca on electric bass and Fabrizio Spera on drums. The ReR Blast and Cuneiform Blast are somewhat different beasts, or at least the ReR Blast 4tet outfit stands in marked contrast to the group heard on its final Cuneiform album, 1999's A Sophisticated Face. Some found Face to be a bit excessive -- given its Rock in Opposition flavors writ large by a comparatively massive eight-piece ensemble -- and preferred the grittier and noisier, more immediate sounds of Altrastrata's four-piece unit. Altrastrata also featured a relatively high degree of improvisation (and even electro-acoustics), a trend that continued on 2007's As Nowhere as Anywhere, a completely improvised endeavor released by FMR. The path beginning in composition and ending in improvisation is well trodden in many avant-garde musicians' histories and, given Blast's 1999 to 2007 trajectory, fans of the group's Cuneiform records -- which arguably represented that label's "rehearsal intensive" orthodoxy -- might have sensed that improv would henceforth rule the day.

Well, not so fast. On Sift, in-the-moment and composed approaches are nicely balanced, while retaining Altrastrata's sense of roughness and immediacy. At a bit over 43 minutes in length, Sift is nearly ten minutes shorter than Altrastrata and jumps back and forth between three long explorative pieces in the ten- to 13-minute range and two comparatively short and focused numbers of about four minutes each. The opening 12-minute title track begins with tumbling stops and starts from Crijns' harmonically off-kilter and astringent guitar in tandem with bass and drums while Bruinsma offers up bursts of staccato baritone. The track collapses into a cacophony of clipped phrases, Crijns muting his strings while Bruinsma demonstrates the kind of reed pops and clicks that set the hearts of avant improvisation hounds aflutter. Before too long, however, a drum roll and funked-up bass introduce an angular unison sax-guitar line and the band is off through a round of blurty art funk and jagged interludes that might even suggest Tim Berne thrown into the mix of Henry Cow's Unrest.

The four-minute "Cklack," penned by Conca and featuring some nice counterpoint and Bruinsma on soprano, is more Cow-meets-funk and is actually quite catchy in its skewed manner -- over in a comparative flash, it seems nearly thoroughly composed and almost returns to Blast's Cuneiform sound. "Fluke" lags a bit, with Bruinsma repeating an uninteresting two-note baritone figure at times -- but although the repetitions go on a tad too long, the track reaches an energized climax thanks in particular to Spera's heated funk-rock drumming at the conclusion. Bruinsma's brief "Swerves" is filled with angular intervallic leaps from the soprano and guitar, and would seem misnamed if not for Spera's rolling drums throughout, literally swerving through his bandmates' spiky interjections like a sports car avoiding traffic cones on an obstacle course. The concluding "Pole," at 13 minutes, is the disc's longest track and charts a potential new direction, mixing clattering noisy improv with disquieting spacy ambience featuring the electronics of guest Elio Martusciello (a Spera bandmate in Ossatura). Taken as a whole, Sift is a strong outing: a Blast from the past, present, and future that just might satisfy and unify the band's fans from whatever era -- and keep them anticipating what might be next.

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