The Degenerate Art Ensemble is a Seattle-based performance art ensemble that mounts elaborate shows, usually starring singer, musician, and butoh dancer Haruko Nishimura (also of the Buttersprites) and involving labor-intensive props, sets, projections, laser animations, and everything including the kitchen sink. The instrumental component is always live, and the Degenerate Art Ensemble's band, led by composer Joshua Kohl, has numbered up to 40 musicians at one time, though on The Bastress the group is placed at eight members -- trumpet, tenor sax, viola, guitar, bass, drums, additional percussion, Kohl as leader, and Nishimura's experimental vocalizing. The music works well on its own without the performance component, although you'll wish you could see the visuals, given the intense, complex nature of the music. Nishimura is fully in character, cackling, chattering, and wailing in a mixture of Japanese and English -- her performance is dynamite and helps lift The Bastress out of its sometimes arty milieu. She is not present on the instrumental Tits and Honey, composed by Joshua Stewart, the most musically impressive piece on The Bastress -- it utilizes a naturally flowing approach to compound rhythm and a discordant, riff-structured lick that makes the piece reminiscent of 1950s conservatory-educated jazz à la George Russell. The main drawback is that for music inspired by avant-garde styles, The Bastress is very homogeneous and has a little trouble breaking out of a certain sense of formality in keeping with its generally hostile and nervous atmosphere. However, as big, ugly big city music, The Bastress is very good, has some outstanding moments, and the benefit of a wild, unbridled vocal performance by Haruko Nishimura.
AllMusic Review by Uncle Dave Lewis