The Wilco drummer returns with an album of pieces influenced by classical minimalism, including a work writen for the Kronos Quartet. Where his previous albums foregrounded himself as a virtuoso performer, Adventureland is about Kotche as a composer first and foremost.
Glenn Kotche is best known as the drummer of Wilco 2.0, the rebel whose junk metal thwacks and snaking marimba lines on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” heralded the beginning of the band’s most creatively fertile period. He also once played the Four Tops on faucets in a Delta commercial. But even before his tenure with Tweedy in Wilco and Loose Fur, Kotche wrote and performed contemporary classical music. His previous albums of original works foregrounded himself as a virtuoso performer, but on Adventureland, a new collection of pieces for chamber ensembles, he’s a composer first and foremost.
As a percussionist writing music based around the obsessive repetition of small, pulsating melodic cells, Kotche automatically puts himself in the shadow of Steve Reich, even quoting the elder composer on “Clapping Music Variations” and “Individual Trains” from 2006’s Mobile. But though he constructs his work from similar building blocks to Reich’s, the pivot points in Kotche’s pieces are more frequent and jarring. He roughens minimalism around the edges and speeds up its action, forcing the listener to adapt quickly to constant metrical changes.
“The Haunted Suite”, the better of the two large works that make up the bulk of Adventureland, is full of these unexpected turns of phrase. Kotche works in his area of greatest expertise, writing for a horde of pitched and unpitched percussion instruments and two pianos. Each movement in “The Haunted Suite” focuses on a different eerie, real-life location, and the shifting scenery inspires radical musical contrasts. The acerbic “The Haunted Furnace” evokes the ruins of a steel mill in Alabama, and takes a page out of the book of the early 20th-century American composer Henry Cowell’s uncanny, tone-cluster-ridden piano music. Similarly herky-jerky rhythms and dissonances arise in the lively “The Haunted Dance”, but the piece is much more restrained dynamically, channeling Indonesian gamelan music. The “Haunted Hive” moment is a percussion-only piece which, unlike the other sections, deals entirely in ambient, sometimes onomatopoeic sound.
In “Anomaly”, a larger-scale work originally written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet, Kotche adopts a less diverse approach. His liner notes mention that some of the piece’s sections were composed on drum kit; it makes sense, then, that the metrical patterns are its most interesting elements. Unfortunately, the actual pitched material often feels like an afterthought, and it’s certainly a bit too familiar, coming across like movie-soundtrack-ready pseudo-minimalism with a pop harmonic sensibility. It’s also too bad that Kotche doesn’t further embrace the possibilities of his chosen instruments, considering he has the world’s premier avant-garde string quartet at his disposal. Unusual string timbres arise only briefly, elsewhere on the album, in the muted middle section of the collage piece “Triple Fantasy”.
So the most compelling section of “Anomaly” is the first, one that Kotche realized electronically instead of with the quartet. The dizzying melodic counterpoint is rendered on what sounds like a water-damaged version of Thom Yorke’s Rhodes on “Everything in its Right Place”, and fractured increasingly by electronic manipulation. This treatment provides the piece with the textural interest that its other sections lack; it’s the one moment where Kotche embraces the noise, grit and incidental sounds which amplify his best work, from his free improvisational recordings to “Ashes of American Flags”.