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Album Review: Emery Clair Comer Hart Taylor — ‘Undustrial Devolution 1 & 2’


Justin K. Comer and his friends who play on Undustrial Devolution 1 & 2 are on the vanguard for free improvisational music in Iowa. That means they’re somewhere out in a cornfield where the other footprints stop, striking out in random directions. There’s focused intent here, but a personal, idiosyncratic one. Consider the opening track, “Animalia Tranquilalia,” a sequence of tightly constrained spare riffs on a few notes. Comer and David Clair play deviously syncopated and polyrhythmic drums that drop into a loose Latin groove for a while. But the whole is spacious and skeletal, leaving room for the music of silence.

“Transportation Systemization” uses penny-whistles for wobbling, sweet/sour melodies, played in two or three parts. Each part shares no common pulse with the others. It has a strong connection to the contrapuntal vocal music of the Mbenga in Congo, with similar interwoven melodic lines. The parts are simple, but they rub against each other in complex yet accessible ways.

This music is part of a new tradition, in dialog with the African and Asian sounds they take as inspiration, without imitation. Comer and his collaborators have absorbed so much, from world music traditions to jazz, from classical to experimental noise. But when they play, it’s not just performance, it’s play; they mess around until something catches their ear, then they improvise further on the sounds they like.

“Festivities and Commercial Activities” is built around a Casio MT-68 keyboard preset drum and chord pattern. Subtle layers of dark trombone, mandolin and beat-boxing make magic from the most industrially commodified music imaginable. One finger drum, bass and chord auto-accompaniment — the most perfectly fake music ever created — gives them license to subvert and transform it into something sinuous and sly.

In “Certartiodactyla Introductila,” Alex Taylor’s didgeridoo defies the clichéd use it’s been put to in new age music. It adds a rough, wild edge that blends seamlessly with Comer’s bass and baritone clarinets. The piece recalls Ornette Coleman and Art Ensemble of Chicago first and foremost, which is part of the musical canon Comer and his collaborators (Clair, Taylor, Chris Emery and Roland Hart) start from.

On volume two, things are a bit more abrasive, with occasional flashes of humor. “Vocontra the Vanquisher” builds on a weird combination of cheap keyboards processed with aggressive audio effects. The organ part that comes in at 80 seconds has a random, wonky pitch shift. It’s like Tom Waits’ carnie band music, but with lots more raw noise.

“Rumpus and/or Ruckus” is “composed spontaneously” by Comer, Emery and Hart. in the course of a live performance on prepared piano, mandolin and hand percussion. Neither arbitrary nor slapdash, it fits together as three people all having the same idea.

These artists have put their hearts into making the weirdest, most uncommercial music they can imagine. They’re seeking hidden corners of liquid beauty and hysteria. This is the academic style of jazz taught in U.S. high schools, adulterated with every corrupting influence, from Pharaoh Sanders to Captain Beefheart to Nine Inch Nails.

This is the sound of musically talented people trying something new 500 different ways, for the pure joy of it. Then they made these recordings, as a snapshot of how their personal music fit together into a wooly, intricately simple whole.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s January 2023 issues.


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