Many of my favorite artists trained as architects, while many of my favorite composers had their origins in the rhythm section. I can’t help but try to find some commonality in this. Architects must strike a balance between being practical and imaginative, understanding both business and art, responding to real-world limitations and concerns which make their work remarkable simply for having been realized at all. Drummers seem to me to share many of these characteristics. There is something about the perspective of the drummer, able to think cyclically and holistically, that grants them a special structural significance. Ugly buildings and sloppy timing will immediately be noticeable, while often the most skillful manifestations are successful precisely because they go unnoticed.
Francesco Gregoretti conjures structure out of a flurry of chaos, a remarkable feat of free improvised drumming that defies expectations. Free improv and noise doesn’t generally go the subtle route, and improvisation may often be considered as the polar opposite of composition, even if this needn’t be the case. Still, it is fair to say that improvised music has a more complicated relationship with structure, one which only makes the role of the drummer more crucial. Solid Layers, Deafening Shapes could be described as a record of solo drum improvisations yet that fact also masks the deeply dialogic aspect of Gregoretti’s playing which remains openly introspective and dangerously explosive.
Coaxing powerful roars and shrieks from the drum kit, Gregoretti generates an interplay with a feedback system in a sort of duet between player and objects. Feedback becomes not just another layer of sound or even an instrument, but an agent in its own right. At times Gregoretti seems not to be so much controlling the sound but battling it. This tension punctuates the entire record, drives it forward while Gregoretti gives it shape and form.
The Italian word for the drums is batteria, which also recalls the various meaning of the English word battery: a source of energy, a physical assault, a unit of weapons. According to interviews, the drums came to Gregoretti as a result of an arbitrary encounter and not through a premeditated decision. This may explain why he has cultivated such an idiosyncratic approach founded on a personal relationship with the drums rather than modeled on the playing of other drummers. Gregoretti’s compositions move dynamically from sparse passages to full walls of sound, cascading deep rumbles and drawn out chimes. At times his playing recalls the idioms of free improv (“Nerves Of A Harp,” “Ring-Around-The-Rosey” ) with rhythmic circular playing and controlled scrapes of the cymbals. It is obvious a drum kit is being played, even if unconventionally, as we’ve become accustomed to these techniques. Elsewhere (“Cosmic Ziggurat,” “Uproar Among The Gods,” Unrestrained Activity”) the roars and squeals sound more like a raging saxophone or a power electronics group. The high frequency swells of “Suspended Solids” can almost be described as delicate and lovely, if not with an air of danger and the same tension which permeates the entire record. This variation keeps the record from becoming monotonous and tiring, and gives an overall cohesion and narrative arc.
Perhaps it is a reductive analogy to say that there is something of the chaotic energy of his home city of Naples being expressed through Gregoretti’s playing techniques, but I stand by this nonetheless. Naples may be the third largest city in Italy, with ancient roots, but is remains very much a peripheral city. It is a kind of frontier, a border between Europe and its other. For this it’s heterogeneity and vitality are confused for “backwardness” or melodrama. While much of the popular traditions might present a sunny and sentimental air, the alternative cultures that thrive there seem more prone to find sustenance in the anarchic freedom that defines a city of people who have learned how to make do. Solid Layers, Deafening Shapes is a fine example of how far this ethos can go.
Toxo label boss SEC_ has also recently released a new solo album. Entitled Melfite, named for an ancient Italic goddess of fertility venerated in the south, it explores the experience of death by starvation alongside the cult of fertility, the complex interplay between Life and Death which is another defining aspect of Naples. Melfite is drawn from recordings originally created for live multichannel diffusion for several radios and speakers, but is supremely absorbing even in two channels.
[This review was originally published at A CLOSER LISTEN in 2016]