Amirtha Kidambi & Luke Stewart ~ Zenith/Nadir

Genres are a fact of contemporary musical life: they categorize, organize, and make manageable the sea of sounds that is the current musical landscape. Traditionally, artists are meant to find a genre or a style and stick with it — to experiment and reinvent themselves, yes, but only within the boundaries of a trademark sound or emotional register. 

On their recent project Zenith/Nadir, vocalist Amirtha Kidambi and bassist Luke Stewart try a different approach: rather than stylistic cohesion, they aim for sharp contrast. The two parts of Zenith/Nadir take radically different approaches to the same instrumentation. While the first side verges on harsh noise, the second side sees the duo taking a stripped back, acoustic approach. As the artists explain in the liner notes, the goal of this approach is to give voice to “extreme contrasts of high and low” and to reflect “a time where despair and possibility were inextricable.” 

Still, the two sides of Zenith/Nadir maintain a certain frantic yet dejected tone that makes the musical distinction between high and low difficult to discern. On the opening track, “Circulation”, pulsing, siren-like electronics and rumbling static compete for space with the howling, stuttered vocals of Kidambi, whose warbling vibrato and guttural screams, fed through a harsh, granular vocal effects pedal, demand the listener’s immediate attention. This trend continues through “Premonition” and “Postmonition”, two further explorations of distorted vocalizations and noise, and into “Exaltation”, perhaps the most unique track of the first side. With haunting, distant swoops, Kidambi lifts Stewart’s newly-distinguishable bass grumblings out of their muddy depths, creating some of the most compelling improvised textures of the album. Like a bridge between the album’s two sound-worlds, “Exaltation” features light touches of distortion, reverb, delay, and electronics, yet both bass and vocals are allowed to retain their distinct timbre. If there is a “high” of the record, it’s here.

Kidambi’s clicking, growling, screaming, and wailing lend Zenith/Nadir’s first side a visceral, ritualistic quality, yet much of its impact comes from the the heavy layering of distortion and effects which surround and augment her vocalizations. On the project’s second side, Kidambi and Stewart allow themselves to improvise in a more “pure” format, yet Kidambi remains committed to exploring a personal repertoire of vocal extended techniques which, although certainly unusual, gradually become repetitive. On “Relics”, Stewart’s bass playing finally comes to the fore, and is revealed to owe much to the angular, stuttering bass lines that characterize much of contemporary free jazz. On “Medium”, Stewart grabs his bow and the duo let loose a storm of acoustic noise, while the more down-tempo closing track “Telepathy” serves as the duo’s equivalent of a ballad, with Stewart’s plodding bass lines serving as the harmonic underpinning for Kidambi’s somber wails. Although the raw ebb and flow of the duo’s improvised counterpoint results in some compelling moments of synchronicity, the three acoustic tracks which comprise the album’s second side feel more like naked versions of their noisier counterparts than new emotional or stylistic excursions.

Perhaps the most honest genre title for Zenith/Nadir would be “improvised”: despite the change in hardware which is positioned as a defining feature of the album’s vision, the duo’s improvisations, which are of more or less the same character throughout the album, remain the album’s main musical material. The high and the low of “Zenith/Nadir”, then, happen only within certain bounds, leaving a fuller range of emotion to the improv sessions of another time and place. (Peter Tracy)

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