Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: Mike Weis - Don't Know, Just Walk

Mike Weis - Don't Know, Just Walk (Type Records)

It's been a while since I've written about a record, and the new LP from Chicago musician Mike Weis is a great place to start.

Mike Weis is the drummer for Zelienople and Kwaidan (of whom I've written about in the past and whose LP was one of my favourites of 2013), and anyone familiar with those bands will immediately recognize Weis's percussion here on Don't Know, Just Walk. Less familiar, and perhaps surprising (to me at least), is the wealth of instrumentation, sounds and atmosphere Weis creates both on his own and, looking retrospectively, in Kwaidan. This is the first solo record of Weis's I've heard, so I found this a fascinating listen on several levels, one of which is discovering how much of Kwaidan's murky drones and bleak, decidedly decaying urban soundscapes are present here as well and are owed to Weis's ability to work across percussion as well as field recordings and guitar and analog effects.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that Weis' main instrument is drums — cymbals, gongs, toms, kick, and a traditional Korean drum called a changgo. While guitar is credited in opener "The Temple Bell Stops" and a synth rises from the murk on "Out Of The Flowers," they are expertly disguised and implemented, respectively. Guitar and synth have been, and very much continue to be, the most widely used instruments in experimental music (I would argue), so that Weis uses drums to varying degrees, and with stunning results, is a breath of fresh air to my ears.

Album opener and side-long track "The Temple Bell Stops" begins with a haunting field recording of a Buddhist monk chanting, while Weis gradually dials in effects, leaving the listener in a swirling grey fog. Cymbals shimmer endlessly amidst whirring loops until the emergence Weis's percussion work provides a meditative pulse. This too recedes into the grey, giving way to ghostly chimes and subtle, creepy electronics. The half way point of the track descends into creaking metallic tones and unsettling radio transmissions, as if you've just drifted into a freight ship graveyard, everything heaving upon wave after wave of malleted cymbals and rumbling low end, until Weis opens things up with an almost galloping, circular drum pattern.

Things appear to lighten up on "But The Sound Keeps Coming," with field recordings of birds conjuring green, vibrant forests. But this quickly disappears into a field of sinister bowed cymbals and more of Weis's hypnotic percussion work; a powerful balance of light and dark, uplifting and sinister.

Certainly the most incredible aspect of Mike Weis' work here is that he recorded these tracks in one take. No overdubs (save for some synth parts). To keep so many loops, field recordings and effects going — and to such staggering heights — is no mere feat, but to do so while also playing percussion is a whole other level of mastery that will leave your jaw agape. Every sonic detail occupies its own space and every idea and motif is introduced and subtracted with such precision and control, making Don't Know, Just Walk a rewarding, astonishing, perfectly executed album.

This is an album with a well-constructed sense of purpose, and it does what all good records do: it makes you stop and listen, and it takes you away from whatever it is you are doing and leaves you somewhere else. In this case, it's a foggy, rusting, decaying port city in the darkest hours just before dawn. Highly recommended.

Available soon from the always-excellent Type Records.