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Mothers of Invention

By Phil Andrews | Posted 4/25/2001

AMM, Neil Feather, Andy Hayleck, Catherine Pancake

Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, April 19


Most bands pump it up to 10 by cranking the volume and the energy. AMM turns it way down to 1 and keep going, passing 0. Forget all about pretty scales, music theory, or crafted melodies. The group's surreal sound exists elsewhere, and subtly urges the listener to follow.

The London-based AMM's first visit to Baltimore appropriately took place in the achingly beautiful Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. The band was joined by fellow experimenters Neil Feather, Andy Hayleck, and Catherine Pancake, who began with a loosely improvised performance on Feather's homemade instruments.

Pancake operated the "Nondo," a plate of metal bent by two steel wires. By balancing a metal rod and striking it with a mallet, she produced both tinny crashes and low, unstable rumbling. Hayleck played the "Nuguitar" (made of guitar parts), deftly manipulating it to pierce the soundscape with sharp, warped cries. Both the Nuguitar and the bizarre "Vegas," as played by Feather, relied on the addition of a bar that controlled the tension of the strings and wildly bent each note's pitch. Just as the listener got comfortable with the new sounds, something changed. Feather turned his instrument around or added a new attachment, Hayleck shifted his foot on a whammy pedal, or Pancake added another balanced bar to her machine, and their axes gave birth to a whole new set of noises. The total effect was a carefully orchestrated yet chaotic and totally enrapturing patchwork of sounds.

While Feather and company's creations ask us to build relationships to unfamiliar instruments, AMM shatters our expectations of traditional musical equipment. The group has existed in various forms since 1965, and the current trio--Eddie Prévost, John Tilbury, and Keith Rowe--has been together since 1980. Prévost plays percussion, Tilbury piano, and Rowe guitar, but it's hard to imagine their lush auditory world as built from only these simple instruments.

Two house lamps lent intimate lighting to the church's fore, where AMM created its otherworldly sound. Tilbury left his stool to strike the inner strings of the piano with a mallet, just as Prévost tapped everything on his kit but the drumheads. Rowe's chosen weapon was a guitar laid on its back like an operating table, the surgeon hovering attentively over it, arranging his tools. As if in blessing, he laid his hands upon the strings to begin the performance before using his army of little fans, portable radios, and other electric gizmos to manipulate the guitar's highly sensitive pickups.

Subtle shifts in the static hum from the guitar washed over the ears, and Tilbury's slow chords on the piano sounded invigoratingly pure amid the noise. Prévost scraped the edge of a cymbal with a bow, manipulating the tone with gentle pressure. The audience of more than 100 sat attentive, many with heads down, concentrating. Time disappeared as AMM's music crept inside the head and lulled the listener into a rapt trance, leading the mind onto the plane of music where melodies disappear and mood and unpredictability rule.

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