On the all-too-rare occasions when Japanese noise legend Masami Akita (aka Merzbow), Swedish saxophone aggressor Mats Gustafsson and blistering Hungarian drummer Balás Pándi converge, listeners know to brace themselves for a brain-rattling sonic assault. Each of these men alone had long been established as among the most ferocious of artists long before they came together to record their savage 2013 debut, Cuts; the onslaught was only intensified with the addition of Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore for a pair of overpowering follow-ups.
The anticipation of such musical violence is what makes this most recent outing, Cuts Open so entrancingly unsettling. Reconvened as a trio once again, Gustafsson, Pándi and Akita found themselves exploring far more spacious and airy soundscapes than is typical for their explosive meetings. The results are no less sanguinary for being unusually quiet (relatively speaking, of course; this trio’s “serene” is the equivalent of most musicians’ wildest extremes).
Instead, the use of agitated percussion and hair-raising breathiness makes for a decidedly ominous atmosphere. When the occasional bursts of brutality arrive – and they do arrive, in all their eviscerating glory – they’re almost cathartic in their relief from the teeth-gnashing tension of the album’s more subdued moments, where menace hangs in the air like a thinly veiled threat.
Of course, the unexpected lies at the very heart of the music that these three make together, which seems to be less improvised in the traditional sense than summoned from some primal beyond. Asked to describe the kinds of sounds he prefers to explore with his bandmates, Akita offers the single word, “Spontaneous.” But the direction that Cuts Open took, nearly a decade into the trio’s collective existence, took even the artists themselves by surprise.
“This is a very, very special record for the trio,” Gustafsson says. “There’s so much air in it. It turned into something completely different, and I love when that happens.”
Gustafsson, naturally, is hardly unaware of the reputation that precedes him and his bandmates in audience’s minds. The saxophonist is renowned for his muscular, molten style, which threatens to burst apart even the voluminous limits of the baritone in combustible units like The Thing and the Fire! Orchestra. Akita has been a pioneer of harsh, assaultive noise music for more than four decades encompassing countless collaborations with everyone from Jim O’Rourke and Alec Empire to Boris and Wolf Eyes. Pándi’s drumming has found its way into a remarkably wide swath of the avant-garde, from free jazz to grindcore to experimental electronica.
Confounding those expectations is a major component of why this album feels so game-changing to Gustafsson. “I don’t like to feel expectations,” he insists with a puckish laugh. “It’s something I share with [legendary saxophonist] Peter Brötzmann: when we step onto the stage, everyone expects this macho, loud, turned to eleven, spiking in the red kind of sound. I like the music to decide.”
It was entirely the music, and the moment in which it was created that led the trio into such expected territory. The recording, at Tokyo’s Studio GOK, took place in the immediate aftermath of a brief Japanese tour. The music they’d made during those live dates, while thrilling, was more of a piece with the trio’s usual proclivities. “The trio can be very loud, very noisy and very intense,” Gustafsson says. “The tour that we did in Japan was as intense as ever, maybe more so. It felt like a wall of loud poetry. But in the studio, suddenly everything started opening up. We didn't talk about it, we just played and things happened. It was a big surprise for all of us, because we’d never gone in that direction before.”
In part, the shift was fueled by the immediate surroundings, in the receptive spirit of truly free improvised music. “We had boxes of percussion laying around,” Pándi recalls, “and as we just go with whatever feels right, we just felt like we should try something with the instruments in the boxes. It led us into a totally unknown territory. People who are not familiar with the gentle side of Masami’s music, are surprised when I say that we made a silent Merzbow record, but this is pretty much the case.”
Cuts Open, like its predecessors, comprises four album side-length improvised pieces. Each has its own character, but the four conjure a stunning cohesiveness, vividly captured by the poetic titles. Chosen by Gustafsson, the cryptic names are taken from a pair of novels by Swedish author Karin Smirnoff. “The major inspiration for my music is poetry and literature,” he explains. “I read a lot, and it gives me a lot of new ideas for how to make music and reasons why we make music. I was deep into these two books at the time, which are fantastic, absurd, very deep stories about human relations. So I borrowed the titles from her books.”
A static hum, an unsettling rattle and sudden gongs open “I went down to brother,” the opening track. Akita’s static distortion sets the bleak, droning mood for the 23-minute piece, which evokes the uneasy feeling of wandering an industrial wasteland, haunted by the feeling of being watched by ill-intentioned eyes. Gustafsson’s flute pokes through the electronic haze like a weed growing through concrete.
Studio GOK was well stocked with percussion instruments, and the trio took full advantage on “And we went Home,” lending a percussive texture to the music that supplements Pándi’s pointillistic outbursts and carries over into Akita’s serrated whorls and Gustafsson’s aggravated breaths and sputters. A little past the halfway point, the drummer propels the piece into a rampaging avalanche.
“We went up with Mother” begins with Gustafsson’s sparse tonguing, echoing in the cavernous silence, offset by Pándi’s metal-on-metal scrapes. The piece sustains an eerie intensity throughout its 21-minute length, dystopian in its elusive disquiet. The expected sonic blitzkrieg finally comes with the final piece, “He locked the Door,” on which the trio unleashes its pent-up aggression with satisfyingly torched-earth abandon.
“For me, every possibility to play with the trio is special,” Pándi says. “We can play together [only on rare occasions], so whenever it happens, we give it our all. I can be as jetlagged as a hyperactive diplomat, but whenever we hook up and have the possibility to play, it fills me up with energy unlike anything else. I think it comes from how deeply we connect on a human level.”
Of course, the trio had no way of knowing when they recorded Cuts Open that its release would coincide with a global pandemic. The band has not been left untouched, with family and friends having been affected by the coronavirus and, like all musicians and countless others, seen the future become unprecedentedly uncertain. Perhaps music this visceral is particularly well-timed for our uncertain times. “I think the importance of creative music will be even greater now,” asserts Gustafsson, adding that oft-cited truism of Albert Ayler’s: “Music is the healing force of the universe.”