G.E. Stinson's Splinter Group:
Blowing Down Blue Sky
This album is cool! Sorta like crashing down your favorite alley in the back seat of Satan's Cadillac with the top down and the radio tuned to a shortwave criss-cross. Imagine hearing fuzzy nods to the likes of Can circa '74, Fred Frith guitar drones, strange Casiotone renditions of Fontana Mix, Jannick Top's magnetic bass lines, and Naked City stopped by the border patrol between what and where...jam it all together into a Kurt Schwitters-esqe collage, stand it up in a corner, and you'll begin to get a idea of where these folks are coming from.
The Splintered Ones have pushed the "Jazztronica" cultural envelope with their recontextualization of sonic media. On Blowing Down Blue Sky they seem less concerned with creating a backdrop for soloists, and much more concerned with breaking up the function of beats/rhythm (like early blues, the guitarist, G.E. Stinson often serves as the rhythm core), and establishing electronic trance states (reference: Can, Neu!, and the music of Jajouka filtered through Talvin Singh) as the foundation for improvisation.
To these ears, the Splinter Group is the "Jazztronica" edition of Ornette Coleman's early Prime Time band. Compare SG's sonic stew to Coleman's Dancing In Your Head. Both musics are focused on the ensemble voice and the restructuring of melody and rhythm. Both groups are interested in embracing every sort of cultural frequency (i.e. music, language, or patterns) to incorporate into their sonic matrix, and both groups are/were composed of strong improvisers.
A major difference between Splinter Group and Prime Time is that Coleman's concepts always included strong themes as the focus for group improvisation, and SG's do not. For instance, "Spoon" starts out in an amorphous cloud of illbient psychedelia, then gains momentum with simple drum overlays, one of the main threads of the piece is the simple wah-wah pattern of the guitar and the surging pulse of the bass, and the non-linear vocal style of Kaoru adds a soft melody to the mix. The second tune "Egg Shell Necklace" builds from a similar base, but goes into a more muscular, but no less dreamy state.
The heart and center of this band is revealed in "Snowman," where sonic overlays lap and weave a tapestry composed of extended guitar tones, subterranean electronic musings, surrealist singing, a wizened turntable babbler, and a throbbing bass. It is an opal of sound where the darkened intermittent transmissions from single voices combine into a neo-harmolodic choir of enlightened grace.
A strong sense of meaning courses throughout this disc- -a Rosetta Stone for lost moderns, perhaps- -that elevates the overall impact of this ensemble. They're on to something here, and it seems they don't know quite what it is... which is a good thing! They're as interested in the search as they are the goal of their quest.
Visit the Splinter Group at www.wdtchc.com
(Farrell Lowe, allaboutjazz.com)
G.E. Stinson's Splinter Group experiments with popular song forms by microwaving them. Often the most sonically adventurous member of a band, Stinson plays with his own kind here. Steuart Liebig, Kaoru, and DJ Chowderhead add shards, shreds, and splotches of sound to the robotically unadorned beats. Known for his fluid imagination and flowing funk technique, Liebig contributes to the electrical storm brewing through the songs. Kaoru recites and sings, often unintelligibly but never without effect. She also dispenses electronics and sound objects. DJ Chowderhead recalls DJ Soulslinger in his willingness to repeat raw sounds, but without the latter's slamming beats. The Splinter Group improvised all six tracks live in the studio.
"Spoon" opens the disc in a steaming jungle of sounds. A stiff lethargic funk emerges with Stinson on abrupt wah-wah, and Kaoru vocalizing like a cross between Lydia Lunch and Phew. The song dissolves back to the Qliopth of resonance. "Egg Shell Necklace" wants to dance, urged on by Liebig's basslines. "Snowmen #1" starts spaciously, long tones, dropped percussion, and Kaoru asking, "What happened to the Snowman?" When the beat comes down they sound a bit like Throbbing Gristle. A complex group of loops causes the song to lurch forward like a one legged turtle. Clouds of intonation roll over the structure, obscuring it. A new beat rises and G.E. trades Mothra-sized jagged guitar slabs with Kaoru's Noh-play vocals.
"Shadow" features Kaoru singing low key with slowing morphing electronics shifting around her. Liebig adds what sounds like prepared bass. Deep in the mix Chowderhead adds Robert Ashley's "She was a Visitor." "Blowing Down the Blue Sky" samples a pounding drumline for Stinson's dense chords. Kaoru's vocals are multi tracked, processed, and poppy. Liebig's bass wallows on the bottom. "Sleeping Not Sleeping" comes together as several bright tones slip in and out of phase. Chowderhead throws some gamelan through it, and after grating steel wool tones Kaoru briefly recites. A loping riff emanates from the soundscape and Kaoru's vocal intensifies.
The Splinter Group's blend of illbient and improvisation creates an otherworldly mix, a futuristic aurality.
(Rex Butters, allaboutjazz.com)
I was a big Shadowfax fan years ago and remember how excited I was to see them perform live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1985. But until now that was my only experience with guitarist G.E.Stinson, who according to his web site has been active with various projects over the years. Splinter Group is a quartet that creates a killer freaky blend of avant-funky jazz, drum n bass, and exploratory free-improv styled sound-art and soundscapes. The band consists of Stinson on ex tech guitar (not sure what that is) and electronics, Kaoru on voice, electronics, toys and objects, Steuart Liebig on contrabass guitars (can't quite picture that), applied tools and tech, and DJ Chowderhead on turntables and minidisc.
The CD opens with "Spoon", an avant-funk mixture of early Material, Golden Paliminos and electric Miles. The music is funky but within a dark and ominous atmosphere, with heavy drum n bass elements and lots of drones, clattering, and assorted other free-improv sounds. "Blowing Down Blue Sky" is similar, but with the added rocking aggression of the classic Massacre trio, and even a brain blasting funky industrial edge. "Egg Shell Necklace" is a funky jazzy soul song, but firmly in the same avant-garde realm that "Spoon" explored. Stinson's guitar comes across as a blend of 70's funk and Fred Frith, which all fits very nicely with the trip-hop and harsh soundscapes. And I love the sax solo which apparently is not actually a sax.
"Snowman #1" is one of my favorite tracks of the set. Soulful vocals are backed by a parade of electronic whimsy and noodlings that remind me of Sun Ra in his experimental days. Bits of funk guitar and turntablisms mix it up with a get down funky but highly chaotic trip groove. I lost track of Laswell years ago but this is the direction he seemed to be heading, though this is far cooler than anything I heard him do when I was following his work in the 80's. Noise, soundscapes, sound-art mayhem, space freakouts and cool grooves all come together to create a sonic attack of the most trip funky kind. Imagine Miles and Sun Ra gone avant free-improv with Hawkwind as their backing band and you'll get something like this 16 minute trip. Why pay the Russians 20 million for a trip to space when you can put on the headphones and give this sucker 2 or 3 spins! "Shadow" is the most purely atmospheric track of the set, though it's also heavily laced with percussion and various sounds, as well as interesting guitar manipulations. And "Sleeping" consists of strange ethnic percussion and guitar patterns, playful voices and rhythms, and a generally freeform chaotic jam. The tension, pace and volume build gradually until becoming quite frenzied around the 4 minute mark. The music transitions continually throughout the tracks 16 minute length. Whining drones and wind tunnel effects create a massive wall of sound. Avant-rock sound-blast freakouts make mush of your brain. There's a steady linear guitar pattern that keeps a calm pace while considerably more aggressive guitar bursts lead the attack from all angles. And what sounds like the entire Broadway cast of Stomp join in the fun for a full ensemble dance on your spine. Lots happening here and loads of interesting ideas, though it took several listens and much aural digestion for me to warm up to this track... certainly the most challenging of the set.
In summary, Splinter Group are really on to something, blending space funk grooves, sound-art, and avant-garde free-improv explorations into something very much their own. Step right this way for a funky, dancey, cosmic, brain shattering experience.
(Jerry Kranitz, Aural Innovations #24 - - July 2003)
Splinter Group made their recorded debut on the G. E. Stinson retrospective released in 1999 by Ecstatic Peace!, but have waited until now to release their first full-length effort. The group's modus operandi is one that's been experimented with for years, and one that's also been pretty exhausted by now, namely, the combination of a DJ with improvisational musicians. That idea seems a bit tired, and, unfortunately, the group's compositional technique isn't much more exciting. Each improvisation on the album is built around beats written by Stinson and DJ Chowderhead and programmed by producer Wayne Peet. The rhythm tracks then serve as a palette for the improvised sounds of Stinson's guitar, along with DJ Chowderhead on turntables, bassist Stuart Liebig, and vocalist Kaoru. The result of the whole process might not be so unappetizing if the programmed beats weren't as strictly tied to steady, unoriginal rhythms and if the group didn't spend at least half of their time improvising what amount to little more than rock songs around the beats. Liebig and Stinson spend far too much of Blowing Down Blue Sky simply jamming in a rather unremarkable manner, and Kaoru's vocals, though improvised, are gothic and atmospheric in a way that immediately brings to mind Siouxsie Sioux and other similar rock-based chanteuses. To be fair, "Shadow," the eight-minute fourth track, find the group developing a thin, abstract sound that seems to suit them a bit more, or at least produce more interesting results, perhaps because the way the song is constructed forces them away from rock language and technique. These eight minutes are fleeting, however, and the title track brings back the funk, so to say.
Splinter Group's intentions seem good, and the overall product isn't one that lacks a certain power and allure. Viewed as atmospheric rock with avant leanings, it's adequate, though not overwhelming. When considered as improvisation, Blowing Down Blue Sky seems lacking, far too straightforward in approach, even hackneyed in a small sense. Why Stinson and co. didn't stretch their improvisational muscles a bit more in the music's creation is beyond me, but little on this album does much to prove to me that the group has much to offer to the already bloated multitude of groups and musicians experimenting with the addition of a DJ to a more "traditional" improvised music lineup.
(adam strohm 2003)
Splinter Group at Fais Do-Do
Don't ask these electrified humans to play you a tune from their Blowing Down Blue Sky (WDTCHC), the release of which they're celebrating tonight. That would be like asking the heavens to repeat a cloud formation. Or, as vocalist Kaoru puts it, "What happened to the snowman?" The Splinter Group resists all forms of freeze, fragmenting and recombining in ways that make the technological natural. Which doesn't mean these four well-traveled musicians resist beats - - guitarist/conceptualist G.E. Stinson considers this a groove project (without drums). The beats come from loops generated by himself, DJ Chowderhead, bassist Steuart Liebig or Kaoru, overlaid by whatever noises and squooshes they wrangle. Kaoru may fool you momentarily into thinking she's going funk-pop with her singing, but soon she's dissolved in the mess with everybody else. It's a space excursion that makes Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" seem like a trip to the grocery store.
(Greg Burk - - L.A. Weekly)
Crib/G.E. Stinson Duo, Splinter Group at the Knitting Factory's AlterKnit Lounge.
Okay, now Crib's Forward Back is playing in the living room while Splinter Group's "Dream of Water" from G.E. Stinson's multi-ensemble compilation Vapor plays in the kitchen, both really loud. I'm in between , and I'm getting scared. On the Splinter Group side, Kaoru's voice is moaning away like a dead spirit while Chowderhead's turntables generate an eccentric, frayed mechanical groove, Stinson's guitar wonks out electronic odors of ancient Limburger, and Steuart Liebig's bass isn't a bass, it's a giant alien creature in the heaving throes of partition. On the Crib side, Devin Sarno's bass isn't a bass either, it's a lava undercurrent, part of me and of everything else at the same time. The effect isn't like two recordings at all; it's like one very modern, very rooted musical project in diabolical stereo. I knew it was going to be that way, of course. But I'm still scared.
(Greg Burk - - L.A. Weekly)
The Splinter Group resists all forms of freeze, fragmenting and recombining in ways that make the technological natural. Which doesn't mean these four well-traveled musicians resist beats - - guitarist/conceptualist G.E. Stinson considers this a groove project (without drums). It's a space excursion that makes Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" seem like a trip to the grocery store.
(Greg Burk - - L.A. Weekly)
Splinter Group at Rocco
Plotting new angles far beyond the oft-maligned geometry of "fusion," Splinter Group unfold another chapter in the continuing saga of live actions by G.E. Stinson (no, not the bandleader from Saturday Night Live ; yes, that guy who co-founded Windham Hill stalwarts Shadowfax!). A loosening crazy-quilt of DJ Chowderhead's beats, Kaoru's voice and motorik percussion, Steuart Liebig's busy bass, and Stinson's multifaceted, swooping guitar, the Group will likely re-examine several tracks from their Blowing Down Blue Sky - - something of a free-jazz turntablist collage.
(David Cotner - - L.A. Weekly)
If you want to read my notes on this album, click here.