I saw Dead Neanderthals at Roadburn (I left early, it’s embarassing, I know – but it’s chronicled in my diary from the Roadburn 2016 experience, so there is really no use denying it – I was completely exhausted after an insane 1st day… luckily, this set is captured for posterity by Roadburn Records on the aptly titled Live At Roadburn 2016 – check it out here). Where am I going with this, apart from getting brownie-points, then smearing them all over myself in an attempt to diminish whatever self-esteem I might have left?
Well, as a matter of fact, how far-fetched it might seem, there actually is some point to this jarring, disjointed beginning. Because, well, Dead Neanderthals at Roadburn 2016 was everything I had envisioned Dead Neanderthals would be. Wild, wacky, completely without abandon, a whirlwind of free and improvised music laying waste.
And along comes their latest release, the wonderful The Depths which goes far beyond even that fantastic slab of music from that late night in the Cul De Sac in Tilburg.
But, before we get to what it is exactly that’s so exciting about this album, let’s – like in any good experiment – start off with some “givens”. Given – a 100 meter long tunnel. Given – the darkness between the end-points of this tunnel. Given – the 2 members of Dead Neanderthals situated at opposite ends of said tunnel. Given – the natural echo and reverberations of the tunnel.
Well, dear reader, you might somehow have sussed where this is going. By putting themselves in this location, by submerging into this experiment, they simultaneously put some external restraints on what they could and could not do with their music.
And let me state quite succinctly – the experiment was a success.
But, given to verbal extroversion as I am, let’s not keep it at that. Let’s dive a bit into that dutch tunnel.
What messrs Aquarius and Kokke have created is perhaps equally intense as most of their other compositions, but with a much more introspective result. They have had to rethink the way they cooperate musically, given the separation in distance, and the unique acoustics of the recording environment. Something also touched upon, in the short documentary – Airhead – by Dick van Aalst and Inge Hondebrink made about the recording.
Het duo Dead Neanderthals onderzoekt het effect van ruimten op hun muziek door te improviseren op een bijzondere plek. De locatie is een 100mtr lange betonnen luchtkoker die een unieke ervaring teweeg brengt . De grootte, de afwezigheid van daglicht, en vooral de enorme galm zijn de elementen die byzondere muziek laten ontstaan.
Where much of Dead Neanderthals earlier productions might have been drenched in an aggressive language, perhaps even keeping the rest of the world at a certain distance, there is an intimacy, an inclusiveness to The Depths. As if the duo is tentatively exploring a totally new language, a new way of communication. And it’s easy to hear the joy behind the relative sadness or longing intoned by the music. The joy of exploration, of inventing, of communicating in completely new concepts – and it will be very interesting to follow how this experience will influence future work and the dynamics of their creative output.
Future impact apart, The Depths is a total joy on its own. There is so much “breathing space” in between Otto Kokkes heartfelt playing that each note is allowed to settle in our consciousness before the next one takes over. Even with the perceived strangeness and difficulties of this completely alien environment, and the searching, slow navigating of blind, virigin territory, the coherence of the music is evident. And where earlier Dead Neanderthals output might take some time for the hapless uninitiated to get to grips with, The Depths attacks on a different level, scooping you up in its arms and plunging you into the music, keeping you there, breathless and entranced for the duration.
From the jarring, thunderous qualities of opener Surface, where Rene Aquarius‘ drumming gets to take centerpiece below Kokke‘s simpler saxophone-parts, mainly built upon taking single notes and focusing on varying the texture of how they are played, through the wonderful saxophone-textures of Descent with the drums taking a more supportive, contemplative approach. Then with Glimpse, realisation of what this setting might do for their playing seems to settle in, they become perhaps more comfortable in the setting, and start musically elaborating somewhat more, until finally with Decompression they try to ascend from the tunnel, but seemingly find that the whole experience has had a profound impact on how they play, and shaking that experience might not be a trivial task.
All posturing on my part aside, this album truly goes to show that putting yourself outside of your comfort-zone can create a whole new level of comfort. An excellent album, and a landmark in an already quite significant discography.