The nearly 90-minute journey listeners take on underground super-trio the Underflow’s new live LP, Instant Opaque Evening, is most assuredly a varied and eclectic one. The lion’s share of the new 10-composition LP ― recorded during various sets in Europe in January 2020, before Covid-19 rattled the world order ― explores the spacy, textured underbelly of free jazz and does so pretty admirably. Masters Mats Gustafsson and Rob Mazurek frequently jump into the forefront with brilliant sax, flute and cornet leads as guitarist David Grubbs, here often in a supporting role, chooses ambiance over action. But there’s more to the record than structure-posing-as-free-form exercises like the 17-minute title track, which carefully treads the line between exploratory and masturbatory. (Insert debate here.) There are extended measures of electronic skronk freak-out (“Self Portrait as Interference Pattern,” the best specimen of that genus, which has a riveting second half), jazzy anti-ballads that highlight Gustafsson’s admirable breathing techniques (“Purple Lacquer Portal”) and even a few reconstructions of Grubbs’ solo work, the most concrete, linear pieces on the outing (“The Optimist Declines,” “Gethsemani Night,” “Cooler Side of the Pillow”). The record can be an exhausting marathon listen, yes, but it’s not for lack of being thorough in presentation.
Instant Opaque Evening and its share of charms is, no doubt, a sonic leap forward from the super-trio’s self-titled 2019 debut. Juicy, postmodernist flare drives the band on tracks like the engaging “Not at My Funeral” – one of the record’s best offerings – with Gustafsson’s almost circular extended breathing patterns calling to mind the inherent structures of his instrument. (There are shades, here and elsewhere, of the vocal interjections on Crumb’s “Black Angels.”) On that track and others, the trio also takes masterful little turns with delay techniques and looping that add a percussive backbone, as well as more of that aforementioned texture. Without a doubt, we agree with Blue Chopsticks’ press material on this statement ― compositions like the hauntingly spare, far too short “A Thiny Eternity,” where mournful flute lines flirt with thin electric guitar figures, or the slightly lesser “Planks,” the record’s second track, are like chamber music from some other cosmos. “Self Portrait,” yes, the one with the electronic noise intro, has a closing third that will knock you off your feet.
Yes, the record has its faults, of course. “Sound of a Wet Leather Ball” offers up a really enticing, promising introduction ― again: great technique with delay and loops ― but the track, a short nugget by Underflow measuring at just nine minutes, falls back too quickly on the electronic noise that elsewhere provides a kind of boost to the narrative forms. It’s easy to get lost in Grubbs’ digital-delayed heartbeat thrums on that track, but the band doesn’t do enough to let the methods flower, which is odd, given how long most of the LP’s songs run. And the Grubbs solo offerings, while interesting road markers during the passage of a loose-limbed record, are a bit out of place ― and that’s even putting aside the existence of post-rock posturing amid all this cosmic-jazz wandering. There are interesting colors and accent marks Gustafsson and Mazurek provide to some of the Grubbs pieces (there is some wondrous little wailing on “The Optimist Declines”) but nothing is more majestic or inspired in the moment than these two musicians have contributed to the likes of Gastr del Sol staples of the past. Grubbs’ voice, a reliable tool, is particularly effective, even oddly vulnerable at times, which stands in as a great yin to much of the record’s meandering instrumental yang. But, is it enough to merit inclusion?
Fans of previous Grubbs/Gustafsson collaborations, particularly the icy, oft-glacial minimalism of Apertura, will find much to like in the new LP, which takes its time to make its points and draw its conclusions. There are wondrous sonic terrains on Instant Opaque Evening, to be sure, and the whole LP, ingested in parts or in one sit-down run, is nothing short of epic. We only can imagine the wonder of seeing it all unfold in real time, unedited, instead of after the fact. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Feb. 15, 2021