Moonrise and Rain-Mist by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Moonrise and Rain-Mist 
Azure Mile Records

Michael Robinson's latest release aligns itself comfortably in many ways to other recordings the Los Angeles-based composer has issued, yet it differentiates itself from them in fascinating manner, too. At the most basic level, Moonrise and Rain-Mist presents two settings in contrast to the single-work focus of his recent releases, a detail that in itself proves fascinating due to the dramatic differences between the two pieces. While both are long-form and include sub-sections, they're structurally unlike: “Moonrise” is designed in such a way that the hypnotic trumpet-and-shahnai fanfare combination with which it opens appears three additional times (in varied form), with extended electric guitar soloing the dominant element in between their iterations; “Rain-Mist” by comparison is a three-part work (four if you include the coda that briefly reinstates the peaceful character of the opening section) that sees the material advance through progressively intensifying stages, a contemplative alap first, a slow and heavy gat second, and a furiously driving and still heavier gat third.

The surprises don't end there. By his own admission Robinson drew inspiration for “Moonrise” from sources as disparate as “Surf Guitar King” Dick Dale, country music, and fellow LA resident Snoop Dogg (whom a captivated Robinson watched perform “So Many Pros” on The Tonight Show), whereas connecting lines for “Rain-Mist” can be drawn to Indian music, Beethoven piano sonatas, and other classical piano concerti. 

An unbroken through-line also can be extended from Robinson's previous releases to this one, given that in “Moonrise” an undulating tamboura drone and driving rhythmic base lock into position at the beginning and pretty much remain in place without alteration until the end (that changes, of course, in “Rain-Mist” due to the three-part structure of the piece). While “Moonrise” derives its rhythmic impetus from a mid-tempo funk groove, the punchy drum tracks in the second and third parts of “Rain-Mist” are rock-oriented by comparison; common to both settings, however, is the percussive dimension, which constellates around dholak, dhol, and udu bols and tabla (though dhol bols don't appear in “Rain-Mist”). In both settings, the fury of the percussive attack finds its counterpoint in the brilliant, free-form acrobatics of the guitar and piano playing.

The associations one brings to a musical work obviously differ for each listener. In text accompanying the release, Robinson notes that a tiny accent embedded into the rhythm ostinato in “Moonrise” could be heard as a horse's neigh, an association consistent with the country dimension imparted to the piece by the twang of the electric guitar; yet when I first heard that detail—a brief, high-pitched squeal—the connection I immediately made was to Cypress Hill's “Insane in the Brain.”

Though electric guitar and acoustic piano are two of the most commonly heard instruments, they're used in uncommonly unconventional ways in these pieces. In both cases, the patterns articulated by them are wildly inventive and often leap startlingly across registers; as if possessed, the instruments pursue unpredictable paths that, like a prototypical jazz solo, assume greater clarity and logic the more times they're heard.

In “Rain-Mist,” the piano playing extends across the full keyboard, the patterns often alternating and overlapping between runs in the high upper and deep lower registers. Reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow's player piano compositions, Robinson's piece makes such incredible demands it's possible a live pianist might not be capable of performing it. But by using the Meruvina to program everything on the recording, Robinson, like Nancarrow, doesn't need to concern himself with what physically can or cannot be done by a human being.

Even though Robinson uses the Meruvina to deftly simulate the playing of an ensemble, parallels nevertheless can be drawn between his long-form pieces and those performed by the live bands of '70s-era Miles Davis and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. In such cases, a given piece might stretch out for a half-hour or more, with the rhythm section providing the soloists with an endlessly churning backdrop against which to emote (even more relevant in Robinson's case is the parallel to Indian music, where a raga can last for hours). Listening to the furious percussive attack in these compositions, the image comes to mind of multiple musicians onstage at a Miles or early Santana concert coaxing endless volleys of colour from congas, tablas, timbales, and the like.

One thing that is unusual is the absence of a bass guitar in Robinson's music, and its absence is especially conspicuous when the bottom end is otherwise so elaborately defined with drums and percussion; one can't help but imagine how much heavier and rhythmically potent that bottom end would be if bass lines were folded into the mix. Their absence doesn't make the material on this remarkable addition to Robinson's discography any less dazzling, however.

February 2016

textura is a Canadian music publication