Expectations might be the worst bane of the music reviewer. They creep silently into your perceptual apparatus before you’re even aware of their influence, like an evil adviser dispensing whispered advice to a naïve ruler. Expectations tell you nothing worth noting. For instance, that Stephen O’Malley’s other projects are growing more abstract with each incarnation, or that Oren Ambarchi rarely plays a full drum kit these days. Even fulfilled expectations, such as expecting that Keiji Haino will shred on any album he makes (this may be wrong; I haven’t heard nearly all of them), turns out to be empty of any insight into the music itself and more clearly relates to personal experience. Collaboration can be an even stronger force in violating expectations; moving musicians out of their accustomed forms and forcing them to fit into a new dynamic will necessarily produce a unique product outside the established oeuvre of the component artists.
I didn’t follow any of this on my first listen to Nazoranai’s なぞらない. I had expected abstract experimentation, slow funereal dirges, ambient noise, haunted house music. But if I had paid attention to the actual makeup of the trio — Keiji Haino, Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley — this album makes perfect sense. The album is one of the heaviest of the year, but it only experiments insofar as the collaboration itself is a trial. O’Malley and Ambarchi are not abstracting from their instruments, but instead provide a standard rhythm section, crushing and relentless in its near flawless execution. And not to say that Haino’s guitar destruction needs a backing band, but O’Malley and Ambarchi add a force of order to Haino’s chaos that is a welcome addition to his sound.
なぞらない was recorded live at a show in Paris. Judging from the cavernous reverb on Haino’s guitar, it must have been a large venue and it must have been incredibly loud. Haino takes center stage here, acting as a kind of front man, and indeed, it’s his vocals and his guitar-slaying that capture the most attention. Even in the moments of respite, it’s clear that O’Malley and Ambarchi, perhaps reverent to Haino’s legendary status, let Haino take the spotlight. Haino ‘s uncompromising style suggests this configuration, but that’s not to suggest that the rhythm section keeps quiet. O’Malley’s bass presence looms behind Haino’s screeching, and Ambarchi’s pulverizing 4/4 creates a continuous rhythmic center. What’s clear is that なぞらない’s sound emerges out of the interplay of the three musicians. While Haino sets the tone, each musician is responsive to the others, forging a unified whole. Heaviness is a form of tightness, of knowing where the music is going and then driving it there, arriving just in time and with enough force to transcend the listener’s expectations.
O’Malley himself states that the lessons he learned from collaborating with Haino proved that “expectations lead to dead ends.” That’s an apt metaphor; instead of the open roads we might have taken, we walk toward areas that close us off to the possibilities of other ways. Dismantling that urge is the key to new experiences. It just took high volume and a good pair of speakers to destroy mine.