Keiji Hano & SUMAC – American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous to Look at Face On

3 out of 5

Label: Thrill Jockey

Produced by: Kondoh Yoshiaki

Raise your hand if you are unfamiliar with Keiji Hano. (Here I raise my hand.) Okay: Hano has been making – in part – noisy, freeform guitar and vocal squiggles since the 70s. Raise your hand if you’re not generally a fan of long, improvisational music. (Here I raise my hand again, consider pointing out my extensive VHF Records collection, but keep quiet.) And now, raise your hand if you were just sort of middle-of-the-road on SUMAC’s first two universally acclaimed releases. (Yeah, again.)

So: am I the audience for Keiji Hano & SUMAC teaming up for an hour+ improv jam session of guitars, bass, Hano shouts, and drums? I’m probably not the audience who will review it glowingly, no, but as was the case with SUMAC’s prior releases, I seem to agree with most of the reviews, I just don’t necessarily find myself all that moved by the output.

While, as stated, I’m not normally in to improv, I’m not without it in my collection. But I think I lean towards versions of it that use the open-ended nature of it to define space, and then make a conclusion out of it. That doesn’t have to mean building up to some kind of grand finale: it can mean bopping off of each players’ walls until a rhythm is found and harped on. I guess my view is limited in that I kinda sorta feel like that’s the “fun” of making it up as you go – you’re discovering a shared vibe, or emotion, and leaning in to it in some way. And that’s mainly what I felt was lacking on American Dollar Bill – while SUMAC and Hano definitely smash together for some interesting, and pummeling, sounds, most tracks (understanding that this was one long session then arranged into tracks) come to a logical ending point… and then wander on. Referring back to that parenthetical, you can present this stuff as a true testament of what was recorded, or possibly edit it down to something more succinct; I can appreciate wanting to release the “truth” of the album – no edits – but what that means is I often felt like Aaron, Brian, and Nick of SUMAC were often hanging back, waiting to see what Hano would do, which gives us a lot of empty space.

The bookends are probably the most successfully focused. The opener isn’t necessarily the loudest track of the bunch, but it’s in the most disarray, lurching from noise to guttural screams to throttling bass and drums and guitar to minimalist feedback and plucking and constantly moving. This is one of those things where it wasn’t necessarily my scene – it’s too random to be said to have found a vibe – but I appreciate it; it’s constantly interesting. And the last track is, comparatively, the most focused: the team starts out hitting riffs, and then winds slowly down in the song’s last section. Inbetween, things are very wishy-washy. When everyone is ramped up, it’s powerful stuff, and the fourth “track” actually has like a legitimate grooving riff they circle around for a while. But on each one of these songs, there’s that wait-and-see methodology, and Hano (I’m assuming) just keeps plucking absent-mindedly, Nick tapping drums, waiting for some signal to jump back in, and waiting… and waiting… And this is without tension. Because the group isn’t really playing together, so much as in the same room, it’s not a push and pull that makes that wait an exciting one. I was just left asking: what is the reason to let this song drag out for twenty minutes?

It’s probably worth noting that SUMAC had their own improvised album after this, and then another teamup with Hano thereafter. As, to my ears, it took an album for SUMAC to sort of figure out their own sound, perhaps this is the warmup to figure out this kind of shtick, and I’ll like the followup more.