The opening sounds on this album are the snap, crackle, and pop that are the aural equivalent of a large sign advertising “Turntablist at Work”. Just as appropriate would be a hearty shout of “All Aboard”, for we are taken on a 20-stop train journey from Berlin to Osaka on a circuitous route including Detroit, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and Peking. The opening track, “Berlin”, sets the mood beautifully; Alex von Schlippenbach’s piano, soon joined by Aki Takase’s, evokes the feel of a steam train pulling out of the station as accurately as Duke Ellington ever did. DJ Illvibe’s sound samples (which include actual chugging trains) further enhance the sound picture being painted, but they only add literalism to the pianos’ impressionism. Therein lies a danger when a turntablist is added to an ensemble; images conjured up by music are only one personal interpretation out of many. If sound samples are too literal, they can direct the listener too much—“these sounds signify this”—destroying the listener’s role in the process. (And, yes, I am aware that this is also a real danger for reviewers, who must avoid imposing personal interpretations on readers.) With few exceptions, Illvibe stays the right side of the line. So, on “Detroit” it is easy to hear its pounding percussive rhythms as the sound of pressing machines and steam hammers (I’m thinking Blue Collar and “Hard Working Man”) but that is not hammered home by Illvibe. OK, let’s all beware of literalism here. As with a real whistle-stop train journey, the actual ports of call blur into one another, while it is the relentless rhythms of the train itself that stick in the memory. That is fortunate, as otherwise this album could have become a smorgasbord of world sounds and musics, lacking coherence. Take “Alma Ata”, for example (that’s in Kazakhstan, by the way, to save you hunting out that old atlas); its sampling of some sort of snake-charming wind instrument evokes the location, conveying a sense of exotic alienation. But the following track “Ulanbator” (that’s in Mongolia) has no local sound samples, focussing instead on those heavy train rhythms again. Thus a fine coherence is achieved, through the journey itself rather than any sense of destination. Along the way, there is often a light playfulness to the music and plenty of moments sure to bring a smile to your face, even if you don’t laugh out loud. (Exactly what I did when listening to “Utrecht” and “Caracas”, on which piano and samples—including accordion—play musical tag over some practice pieces. Delightful.) Frequently, the two pianos are overlaid and intertwined, often becoming inseparable; on occasions, they sound as if they are sharing one keyboard. As the album progresses, the role of Illvibe becomes ever more vital, providing samples around which the pianos can improvise. Most extraordinary (and my current favorite track, although that changes with every listening, so plentiful are the choices) is “Oklahoma”. Illvibe drops snatches of Muddy Waters’ vocals into the mix, while the pianos teasingly flirt with breaking into a full-blown blues riff without ever quite making it. Serious fun. This is one of those albums that you replay again as soon as it ends because nothing can easily follow it. I know it will be on my end-of-year list of favorites; I recommend you try it and see if you agree.
Aki Takase (piano), Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano), DJ Illvibe (dj)