I crashed my car to Opening Bell, the ADHD cartoon symphony that begins Tyondai Braxton’s 2009 Central Market. Not on purpose – the official record shows that they ran into me – but it definitely played some role, that bricolage of lilting strings and mischievous piano inviting mishap and shattered glass and broken metal, like Kubrick’s droogs fighting to Rossini.
That album sounded like nothing else being released at that time, its compositions often breathtaking in their complexity and ambition, at once comic, swooning and terrifying and revelling in its own balletic absurdity. It was also a lot of fun, which isn’t particularly something that can be said of its successor.
Drone and glitch, chime and echo: where Central Market was all spectacle HIVE1 is sci-fi insularity and Nostromo horror, its runtime shaped by space far more than sound. Notes ebb and fade back into the shadow, loops flare and decay, percussion builds towards a heartbeat then flatlines moments later, a trace of rhythm amid the abstraction. It’s fitting that this was born as a piece of art, a 2013 live multimedia work that was both architectural installation and ensemble performance, five musicians perched atop illuminated pods programmed to complement the sonic mood of the synthesisers and percussion – cocooned within those smooth white Guggenheim curves these tracks would make a lot more sense. Walking to the shop to buy some milk – less so.
But hey, that’s my fault for trying to force such a challenging, singular work into the banality of my day. Truth is, HIVE1 isn’t going to do that – fit cosily into a morning commute, set a convivial tone at dinner or soundtrack a weekend’s binging. This is never, ever going to be background music. From the opening Gracka with its nightmare scatter of digital notes and handclaps to Outpost’s abyss of burnt-out wiring and ominous bass and Studio Mariacha’s manic snatches of garbled vocal this is an album almost indifferent to melody, its rhythms obtuse and its tone airless. Parts of this – particularly the seven minute Amlochley, lodged at the album’s core like gas deep within the mine, canaries twitching wretchedly nearly – are pretty tough going. And yet there’s a compelling quality that drives this forward, an audacity to the arrangements and a fever to the percussion that attests to a level of innovation perilously rare in music, to ambition some way beyond crafting mere songs.
Not that Braxton’s averse to cutting loose: HIVE1’s ten minute closer Scout1 is an eruption of frantic, near ritualistic beats and dirty synths, almost tear-wrenchingly cathartic after the spartan minimalism that precedes it. It comes as a shock, actually, that sudden appeal to the body over the brain, a reminder of the man’s Battles past, when the cerebral hit the primal and the world was gifted Atlas.
There’s nothing here as good as that, but then that was pretty much a given: there’s not really anything anywhere as good as that. But what HIVE1 is is that very rare thing, an artwork that remains interesting out of context, torn from the safety of the gallery walls but just as uncompromising away from them – a work of striking, defiant abstraction that cements Braxton’s position as one of the most interesting composers of modern times, and one that’s more than worth careering off the road to.