THE WIRE 180 - 02/99
Steamboat Switzerland. As group names go, it isn't very promising. Perhaps it triggers some arcane resonance deep within a hitherto undetected status of Alpine culture, but to a blinkered Anglo like myself, it is suggestive of an ebbui-inducing pleasure cruise across Lake Geneva. Certainly it appears too timid, too idyllic a handle for a group that might be the world's only (admittedly selfdescribed) "Hammond avantcore band".
Now that's a generic label you don't come across every day, even in these times of multi-idiomatic madness.In fact the only other group I can reasonably think of describing thus would be The Tony Williams Lifetime, and they dibanded a quarter of a century ago.
Hold on. Am I getting ahead of myself again? Does anyone else know what I am talking about? Let me backtrack a little.
Sometime last summer I received a cassette through the post, mailed from Zurich by the great but somewhat underheralded and under-recorded guitarist Stephan Wittwer. The tape contained two long tracks by Stephan's new trio Sludge 2000. In this instance, the group's name turned out to have a less ambivalent relationship to music; it sounded exactly like you are imagining it, only more so: a sick sea of futurist noise whose outline, vaguely defined by the classic power trio model, was warped and pushed to the brink of collabse by a truely unhinged use of live electronics, guitar and bass notes sprayed like shotgun pellets, rhythms that surged and receded rather than keeping any conventional notion of time or pulse. With the possible exceptions of the Norwegian quartet Supersilent, the London trio MASS, and especially Asahito Nanjo's genuinely radical Tokyo group Musica Transonic, it sounded like the kind of music that I didn't think anyone made anymore, one that took flight from the electrocuted improvisatory passages in the songs of Lifetime, Dream and, yes, Miles davis's mid-70s groups, but landed in a territory all its own. As far as the combination of avant rock and improvised music went, Sludge 2000 felt like the real thing, true innovators in an aera more used to self-aggrandising mavericks. Nybe that explained why they couldn't get a record deal.
Anyway, I thanked Stephan for the tape, passed it, in an A&R kind of way, to a label-running acquaintance, and thought little more of it.
Then, just days into the New Year, up cruises Steamboat Switzerland, on CD this time, again posted from Zurich, in this case by bass player Marino Pliakas, who, along with drummer Lucas Niggli, makes up two thirds of both Steamboat Switzerland and Sludge 2000. In his letter, Marino traces Steamboat Switzerland's sonic ancestry with commendable economy: " The Noise and Improv elements are close to Sludge 2000. Only that theses elements interact with a kind of modules descending from on the one hand hardcore rock and on the other contemporary composition." The trio's third member is organist Dominik Blum, a musician in the tradition of Mike Ratledge and Larry Young. That's to say, under his fingers, the Hammond B-3 is liberated from service in a thousand loungecore jazz trios to become a roaring instrument of darkness, an infernal noise-maker, a cosmic destroyer. Steamboat Switzerland's real-time collective improvisations turn abstract noise into visceral reality, punctuated, or maybe that should be eviscerated, by power chords straight out of the Christian Vander songbook.
Again, it sounds like a long forgotten approach to music making, one that was abandoned, perhaps, with the sessions Larry Young recorded in 1972 with guitarist Nicolas and the drummer and live electronics pioneer Joe Gallivan, and which went unreleased for 25 years. In other words, a music that reveals the true message that was coded and burned into the prototype fusion cyborg by John Coltrane's last group: not the potential for crossover, but for revelation through sound, deliverance through noise.
Is there a place in the world for such music? I doubt it. Too in awe of the transcendent properties of amplification for the jazz and Improv circuits, too wired and volatile for the alt.rock communities, annexed by the classical academy from the parallel soundworlds dreamed by Iannis Xenakis and Edgar Varèse, it exists in a vibrant but diminishing place, sealed off from all enquiry, ripe for discovery.