Perhaps you’ve heard Dave Gutter’s Grammy-winning “Stompin’ Ground” (see “Musicians Dave Gutter, Amy Allen win Grammys for Portland,” page 2). What makes the funky, horn-bleating, percussive, full-band vamp “American Roots” is perhaps in the eye of the Grammy nominator. It seems more jazzy R&B, but it is very much the sound you hear when walking Frenchman Street in New Orleans, rooted in the culture of its people.
It is familiar on first listen. You know what to do with it.
The same likely cannot be said for what Sigrid Harmon is doing, whether on her own (a.k.a. The Asthmatic, who will play a gig with Gutter this August up in Searsport as part of the ARME Boot Camp), or as a duo with avant bassist David Yearwood, or with the four-piece improv ensemble HX KTTN. What she’s doing — and she’s produced some 25 releases since 2017 — bends the definition of music. It is sometimes artistic noise. Noisy art.
“Asthmatic is electronic,” Sigrid, 23, explains over coffee. “It’s more like film scores in a lot of ways and a lot of found sound. And a lot longer pieces. It’s definitely not stuff you can dance to.”
The Asthmatic’s latest is “V I S C U S,” nine songs and four remixes by the likes of Sea Level and C$BURNS, guys who’ve been around a bit. It can be downright menacing, moving from a duck-like quacking in “Scott Egg (No Bass Mix),” with a building organ in the background, to a grimacing, choking, mumble, like a chorus of gollums. “Choral Phlegm” does that one better, when a meowing mewl leads into the mouth noises of a creature gnawing at something, and organ chords now like a vampire movie.
Is that female vocal a cry of peril? Madness? And then, is she spitting raspberries? In the headphones, it could be too much for this listener. Other times, as with the opening “Northern Spy,” extended bars of brown noise are replaced by a drop to almost silence, skittering digital noises low enough to make you wonder if they’re just part of your background environment.
One can definitely hear Harmon’s expressed affinity for Diamanda Galas, whose 2022 “Broken Gargoyles” features just two songs that spiral past 40 minutes of fairly demonic piano playing and caustically operatic vocals. It’s a rough listen for me, personally.
Her recent two-song live release with Yearwood, “2 Bit(s) Live Act,” is a bit more accessible in that it’s organic and it’s more discernible as to who’s doing what — Yearwood riffing with bow, plucked strings, and percussion on body of his stand-up bass; Harmon improvising vocals that sound sort of like words, but definitely aren’t. There are echoes of Yoko Ono’s pre-Lennon work, a keening and sometimes choking.
HX KTTN, though, has a little more for a traditional listener to hang onto, Harmon reports (they played the Apohadion this past weekend, but I didn’t get there). That, you can dance to. Rion Hergenhan (El Malo) “brings the Cuban and Haitian drum beats and then everyone else in the band is experimental. He’s the foundation that keeps it all together. I think that’s why we’ve been getting gigs.”
Rounded out by Yearwood and Nick Largey on guitar, HX KTTN is a purely improvisational thing, with no songs. It can be bluesy or jazzy, too. “Most of the time,” says Hermon of their rehearsals, “it’s [like], ‘Okay, we’re going to play some games and whichever ones we like, we’ll do those on stage.’ But that’s as far as it goes in terms of preparing for a gig. It’s never the same as the last time.”
Like, “a vamp in A?,” I ask. “What kind of games?”
“Oh, no, not like that,” she says. “More like: try to be as quiet as you can without using any effects and try to sound like an insect. Or, each person plays one note around the room and then you go faster and faster and faster and you don’t have to keep to that time and it will fall apart eventually.”
What about the singing? “It’s bits and pieces of words,” she says. “I like certain syllables, or certain phrases and then like twisting them, elongating them. I like the idea of making a brand-new sentence that’s not part of the English language, but uses things that are kind of similar.”
And how do you know if it’s successful? “When it flows seamlessly,” she says. “When it doesn’t start and stop like one of those tambourine monkeys. If you can keep going and still go in and out of different styles and paces, but do it really fluidly, that’s when you’re at a good point. Most of the time it sprawls. Sometimes if I feel like it’s starting to stutter, I turn to the band and just [waves arms] stop!
“And then we start up again with something else.”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
HX KTTN play Local Motives, on WMPG, Feb. 22.
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
Welterweight – “M. Joe Meek” | Doug Cowan continues his 20-year project with a four-song EP that is his first work since 2019, full of the same Brit-influenced pop-rock that is his stock in trade. This opener features mandolin from Greg Bjork, like an early Faces tune.
Zeme Libre – “Take Me Alive” | Leaning heavily on the reggae tradition, the title track of Zeme’s new seven-song album ramps up into a rager full of organ for the chorus, but the verse is nothing but easy sunshine.
RHYME Inc. – “Cold Steez” | With a beat by Ill by Instinct, currently plying his wares in Southeast Asia, we get here side-by-side references to Rousseau and Diplo, a clean delivery from Dynamo-P contrasted with grimey rap from ARMZ.
Boy Bluejay – “Hard To Love” | A ukulele strum provides foundation for a minimalist beat that Bluejay rides with an emo-rap in a new video that features the Congress Street Starbucks: “If we split apart then I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
Jordan Holtz – “Call It!” | A spare and haunting kind of folk, built without much more than bass, vocals, and a bit of guitar, this is the lead track from the five-song “Not Close for Comfort,” released by the Pretty Purgatory label.