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Last night Rhys Chatham debuted his new group, the Essentialist, in Chicago on the opening night of the Wire magazine’s Adventures in Modern Music Festival at the Empty Bottle. Press materials for the composer’s tour claimed that groups like Earth and Sunn O))) inspired this new project--interesting, considering that the harmonic depth and heady overtones of Chatham’s early guitar music is clearly a big part of the aesthetic of those two newer acts.
Before the show started, my pal Andy joked that he was afraid the group was going to sound like Helmet--whose leader, Page Hamilton, once played with Chatham. They opened with a promising, slow-moving piece that was all lumbering slabs of humming chords driven by molasses drumbeats. The chords hung in the air like ominous clouds, with their molecular components flitting about in the din like gnats around a light bulb. But with the second piece Andy’s joke didn’t seem so silly. Most of the set was built from pieces that seemed like a commentary on heavy metal clichés—metal’s greatest riffs. The sound was spectacular, but the drumming—lousy with double-speed kick-drum bombs—chopped the guitar sound up in a disappointing way, and the endless chunka-chunka riffing didn’t help matters. I found it strange that a guy who was steeped in minimalism in his early days—his gorgeous Two Gongs (1971) is little more than an hour-long exploration of shimmering metallic resonance—was writing pieces that suggested ADD.