To say that an album or artist is truly unique is frequently a rhetorical device that, from a critical standpoint, is tantamount to cheating. Expressions such as “Artist X defies categorization” or “Album Y refuses to be pigeonholed” are two of the loftiest clichés in the reviewer lexicon. That aside, in an era of exceedingly dense media saturation, it is the occasional good fortune of the music critic or film reviewer to come across a film, album, or artist that stands out as an anomaly in a sea of torpor, disingenuousness, and imitation. Random Touch may just be one of the most unusual, idiosyncratic, and progressive (in the literal sense) acts in the arena of postmodern music.
I use the term “postmodern” with caution, but truth be told: although the band’s latest full-length Alchemy possesses characteristics of jazz, blues, modern classical composition, ambient electronic, and post rock, Random Touch's music eschews any and all of the above genre labels, having seemingly evolved (or mutated) beyond them. Challenging, bizarre, and redolent of a logic that can occasionally border on the infuriating, Alchemy consists of 13 unabashedly radical and exploratory pieces that are as deliberately provocative as they are compelling.
The course of Alchemy, however erratic, is established with the opening track, “Incompleteness Becomes Us,” a somewhat ambient, keyboard-driven number featuring an extraordinarily subtle, almost subliminal guitar melody and the occasional effect-laden cymbal flourish. Perplexing and extemporaneous (though nonetheless coherent via slender threads of an underlying, albeit perverse, structural logic), James Day’s atmospheric synth pads and dissonant keyboard stabs occasionally lapse into sci-fi noodling and horror-show theatrics. This effect is amplified by Christopher Brown’s phase-shifted drumming, but it serves as an intriguing contrast juxtaposed as it is against Scott Hamill’s clean-toned six-string arpeggios.
Like the band’s previous efforts, there are traces of abstract and free jazz to be found here. “Nocturnal Emissions” is perhaps the most patently jazz-influenced piece on Alchemy, colored by influences as diverse as Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and even Fats Waller. Brown’s percussion in particular serves as the music’s primary link to the jazz idiom. His unorthodox fluidity and rhythmic virtuosity add a theatrical element to these pieces such that the end result seems informed by a performance art sensibility, as evidenced by the tracks’ largely visual nature.
Similar to how artists like Frank Zappa, John Zorn, and Angelo Badalamenti used jazz as a starting point from which to create something humorous, grotesque, and cinematic, Random Touch employ a similar tack -- deconstructing and reconstituting the characteristics of modal jazz to create something considerably more expressive and expansive. Hamill, whose guitar playing again serves as a sort of gravitational center to these tracks, utilizes a much more granular, physical approach to his playing on Alchemy. On pieces such as “As Above, So Below,” the raw and understated beauty of his playing is allowed to take center stage. Hamill wields his instrument in much the same manner as artists like Bill Frisell and, in particular, Marc Ribot, whereby the guitar’s textures and tonal dissonance as a means of conveying emotion are as equally (if not more) important as straightforward melody. His playing alternates between jagged, angular chords, inverted blues licks, bursts of distortion, and simple modal figures. Hamill’s playing style suits the thematic properties of Random Touch’s music, but on tracks such as “Moonrise With Plane,” which relies heavily on a vaguely cosmic ambience, his part is just as integral as that of his fellow cohorts and is indicative of a chameleon-like ability to adapt his playing style over a constantly shifting palette of sound.
Where Alchemy differs from its predecessors most profoundly is in the prominence of James Day’s circuitous and sophisticated keyboards, which have metamorphosed into a manifestly organic, animate entity. Day’s playing and penchant for singularly quirky and unconventional melody have attained particularly lysergic levels of abstraction, and his experimental inclinations and avant-garde classical leanings have become even more pronounced on this outing. Day counts modernist and contemporary classical composers such as Stravinsky and Ligeti as influences, and a comparison would be a valid one. Combining the dynamic intensity of Stravinsky with the absurdity and expressionistic decadence of Ligeti, Day’s keyboard phrasing alternates between passages of moody ambience and jarring synthesizer fulminations that place these tracks firmly in league with purveyors of atonal haunted-house atmospherics such as Krzysztof Komeda, or Krzysztof Penderecki, for that matter. Alchemy is brimming with cerebral harmonics and tonal gradations, such as the album’s spectral closing track, “Intimate Friction,” which finds Day dabbling in icier, but appropriately otherworldly, soundscapes.
Alchemy also comes packaged with a DVD laden with an unbelievable amount of material, including live performances, music videos, and other extras rife with an abundance of hyperstylized optical art visuals and rendered with a hallucinogenic flair. The DVD serves as an intriguing and insightful companion piece that offers a welcome glimpse into the inner workings of a band that has fashioned itself as pointedly and unrepentantly indie in the truest sense of the word.