Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, "Llyria" (ECM)


The consequence of civilized genius is despair. Since Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch is obviously too depressed to give his tunes titles instead of numbers, I'm gonna do it for him. Least I can do, considering his quintet's hermetic labor in transmuting groove into grief.

The one I'll call "Rail" sets the tone of cloudy tension and anxiety, the drums/percussion of Kaspar Rast/Andi Pupato clacking down the line as the sax of Sha ticks off the telephone poles going by and we sip tea bleakly. The repetitions and the simplicity of the individual parts aren't boring because you focus on the rhythms, which hardly demand the title of groove because they interlock with such complexity. (Apply this throughout.) Do we moderns feel civilization like this? Yeah, mainly in Europe.

The one I'll call "The Duke of Earl Slits His Wrists" goes pinggg! and boom! and oozes into an evil piano riff like the Doors' "Five to One" on heavy barbiturates. The sax rises to a realization, then everybody goes, "Now that we know that, we can give up."

The one I'll call "Oh by the Way" enters in mid-conversation by stating a four-note piano figure that echoes again and again down an empty street, indicating that the whole sentence was something like, "Oh by the way, you've been exposed to a toxic leak and you've got three weeks to live." This time, though, the band don't surrender; they hijack that same old commuter train and open the throttle till it's trundling along under the power of sheer urgent desperation. Tinky-ding! says the percussion. Clear the damn tracks! says the rhythm.

Let us not neglect the electric bass of Björn Meyer, who's got that knack for laying a big resonant vibration in exactly the spot where it will make the greatest impact. Ronin are all like that -- guys who hit their marks all at different times and when they put it all together, it's a groove. On their third record, they don't want to be a groove band anymore. But praise be, they can't help it.