Joshua Abrams


Eremite Records MTE-63/64 x2LP


Abrams guimbri, bass, celeste, clarinet, small harp, bells
Hamid Drake frame drum, tabla, conga, trap kit
Emmett Kelly electric guitar
Jeff Parker electric guitar
Lisa Alvarado harmonium
Ben Boye chromatic electric autoharp

Track Listing:

MTE-63 Side 'A'
1. By Way of Odessa
MTE-63 Side 'B'
1. Lore
2. Of Night
3. Broom

MTE-64 Side 'A'
1. Translucent
2. Of Day
3. Magnetoception
MTE-64 Side 'B'
1. Spiral Up
2. The Ladder

recorded February 2013 Attica Studios, Berwyn, IL & 2013>14 Parlor One, Chicago
producers: Michael Ehlers & Abrams
engineers: James Bond & Joshua Abrams
paintings: Lisa Alvarado

Joshua Abrams: Magnetoception

"mastered for i-tunes" digital download

on magnetoception joshua abrams is back exploring new contexts for the guimbri, the three-stringed north african bass lute at the heart of his eremite recordings natural information & represencing. the artist's first large scale work on vinyl, magnetoception began as a commission by eremite for abrams to make a double LP based in extended performances by an ensemble of abrams, guitarists emmett kelly & jeff parker, & drummer hamid drake. the group recorded the nucleus of magnetoception live to two track, circled around vintage neumanns & a woodstove in a berwyn, illinois attic february 2013. over the next year at his chicago studio, parlor one, abrams added solo pieces for harp & clarinet, along with lisa alvarado’s harmonium, ben boye’s autoharp & percussion embellishments by drake.

abrams's compositions are a fascinating nexus of ideas from non-western traditional musics, minimalism & jazz designed to catalyze his musicians toward a single group-mind organism of sound. on his 2012 album represencing abrams presented his music in capsule-length pieces realized by duo & trio groupings drawn from a pool of a dozen musicians. magnetoception presents one ensemble methodically unfolding his compositions over longer durations. the performances intricately layer rhythm, melody & drone into sonic textiles of extraordinary expressive breadth, by turns dense or spacious, repetitive or indeterminate, clattering or placid.

in addition to his masterful contributions on trap kit, tabla, conga & frame drums, hamid drake acts as a direct link to the visionary music of don cherry, one of abrams's essential artistic models.

magnetoception is the fullest measure yet of joshua abrams's sound world. it sounds like no other music being made today. presented in a heavyweight stoughton 'laserdisc' gatefold sleeve, mastered by helge sten at sten audio virus lab, oslo, norway. vinyl cut at sterling by steve fallone & manufactured by RTI in an edition of 875 copies.

since the 2012 release of represencing, abrams has toured north america & europe with a shifting line-up of musicians as 'natural information society' & scored the music for the award-winning films the trials of muhammad ali & life itself. in may 2015 abrams natural information society will tour the u.s. & canada, including a 17 may appearance at musique actuelle victoriaville by a seven piece manifestation of the band: abrams; lisa alvarado, harmonium; ben boye, autoharp & pianette; emmett kelly, guitars; mikel avery & frank rosaly, drums & percussion; special guest hamid drake, drums & percussion.

the wire magazine no. 3 record of 2015, all genres
pitchfork no. 2 experimental record of 2015
magnet magazine no. 1 jazz/improv recording of 2015
matador records matablog top ten records of 2015
new city no. 4 rock album of 2015
stupid scientifical no. 7 best vinyl album 2015
KDHX top 10 albums 2015
reckless records employee best of 2015
the big take-over critic list best of 2015
2015 SOTO staff picks
peace & rhythm 2015 round-up
other music best of 2015
forced exposure staff pick for year's end 2015

Joshua Abrams’s Magnetoception came out on vinyl in mid-May, and I’ve been taking my time absorbing it, which feels appropriate. Mr. Abrams, the improvising bassist from Chicago, gathered a group around him to play music that moves in regular rhythmic paces and according to compositional direction, but slowly, with lots of contemplative space, and with modern and ancient instruments: stand-up bass and electric guitar and drum set, but also a frame drum and a guimbri, the three-string African bass lute associated with the Moroccan Gnawa musicians. Spread across a vinyl double album — or on iTunes, if you like — it’s patient, layered music that’s always heading somewhere, sometimes spare and sometimes complex and shimmering.

-- Ben Ratliff, New York Times

When we profiled bassist Joshua Abrams in 2012, we noted that the songs on his first two albums could go on much longer—and Abrams agreed. For the new double LP Magnetoception, Eremite label owner Michael Ehlers prodded him to test that theory. “It was almost like a dare,” Abrams says.

The songs Abrams makes with his group Natural Information Society are repetitive and minimal, based on cycling, hypnotic loops, so stretching them out might tempt him to artificially vary their sound. But Abrams decided that even less would be more. “I was trying to find ways to get ourselves to be patient,” he explains. “To move slowly, to take our time, and let the music be felt, more than moving soloistically.”

Magnetoception’s length gives space for each instrument to make subtle contributions to a quietly-building mix. These include the drums of veteran jazz improviser Hamid Drake and the guitars of the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly and Tortoise’s Jeff Parker. It’s all led by Abrams’ Guimbri, a three-stringed African lute he’s used for years. “In a way, it is a simple folk instrument,” he explains. “But it’s also a very sophisticated instrument for centering the mind, for centering tension. That’s how it’s used traditionally. And even though I’m not using it traditionally, that still finds its way in.”

The members of Natural Information Society craft Abrams’ songs like painters composing a landscape, or bricklayers constructing a building, with patience and devotion that values long goals over immediate gratification. Inside these calm journeys lie new sonic revelations, which might not have come in shorter durations. “I find that the most energy comes from when you make a new discovery, so I try to make environments where we can find new things,” Abrams says. “Often songwriters say it’s about creating an attitude, but I think it’s more about creating an environment.”

There might be some politics in that as well—though Magnetoception is wordless, it holds a message about how to move through the world. “If our music’s political, it’s because it offers the possibility of slowing down,” he insists. “We live in the age of attention and availability, and I’m not saying this is Luddite protest music, but it is offering a certain level of experience, and it operates in slightly different ways.”

In that process, Abrams makes music that falls between genres. There are hints of jazz, rock, raga, and many cultural musics, but it all feels singular. “Genre can be something that you don't fit yourself into as much as you use,” Abrams says. “What does it mean to access it? Compositionally, what does it mean to put weight in one position and a counterweight in another? It’s about putting us in a situation where we can find things.” (Read an extended version of our interview with Abrams here.)

-- Marc Masters, Pitchfork's 'The Out Door'

The bass player tends to be the musician you count on to be there, the one who holds it down. Joshua Abrams has no problem doing that; witness his work over the years with Matana Roberts, Town And Country, Nicole Mitchell, Bonnie Prince Billy, and the Roots, amongst many others. But he exerts a different gravity when he convenes the Natural Information Society, a variably configured ensemble that gathers around Abrams and his guimbri.
The guimbri is a Moroccan bass lute used by Gnawa musicians such as the Maleem Mahmoud Ghania in nightlong healing ceremonies, and Abrams has had one in his instrument collection since the late 1990s. He doesn’t try to play it in a traditional fashion, but he remains mindful of its original intent and makes a point to play up the instrument’s centering qualities. While you can’t play it fast, and it only has so much range, each note that comes out of it has palpable shape and heft, which enables it to cut through whatever sounds surround it. This presence makes it uniquely suited to commanding and refocusing awareness.
Abrams first recorded his guimbri on Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake’s From The River To The Ocean, where its sonorities added to the pan-cultural beatitude that Drake brings to any setting. But it was still essentially the exotic seasoning on a free jazz session, fulfilling a role similar to Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s oud on John Coltrane’s “India.” But on the Natural Information Society’s records, the guimbri is the center of gravity. Orbiting around it are an array of vibes, strings, and woodwinds playing elements of jazz, rock, and minimalism. That center is also a broadcast station, generating a signal that jams overstimulation and adjusts the rate of listeners’ conscious processes to match its own.
The first two NIS records, Natural Information and Represencing featured mostly shorter pieces, played by a shifting line-up; they established the parameters of the project’s sound world in digestible form. The music rarely stretched out like is so often does in concert. Magnetoception is a double LP, though, so it has more space to devote to the society in full-on, trance-jam mode. While Abrams adds harp, clarinet, and celeste on some short pace-changers, most of the record is devoted to elongated performances by the same group of musicians. Drake plays frame drum, trap set, and tablas; Lisa Alvarado contributes flickering harmonium tones; and guitarists Jeff Parker and Emmett Kelley offer contrasting elaborations upon the compactions of melody and rhythm that emanates from the guimbri.  The side-long opener, “By Way Of Odessa,” uses patience and understatement to draw you in, and near subliminal drones to hold you in place. The next piece, “Lore,” is nearly as long, and it brings the drone to the front, only to vary it with subtly dubby effects. Although the music is hypnotic, trance doesn’t lead to easy bliss. The guitars add grit as well as languor, commanding sharpened attention rather than drift. The Gnawa use their music to banish demons and ease suffering; Abrams uses his to draw us into a state that is altered but quite alert. It’s not just a great set of grooves, but an antidote to the splintered attention of 21st century living.

-- Bill Meyer, Dusted in Exile

So psych’d when I first heard about this from Michael of Eremite. The follow-up to the stellar “Represencing” is another guimbri jamboree! And a double disk whammy at that, wow! Whereas Abrams’ previous album juxtaposed his gourd goodness in smaller songs often with one or two guests, here the pieces are stretched out and an emphasis is placed on tranquility, with an expanding band for our expanding minds. Things percolate the most on “Translucent”, with a prog rock riff chasing itself and Jeff Parker and Emmett Kelly burrowing on electric guitars. Abrams driving force on the guimbri, especially when locked in with the always amazing Hamid Drake, is fluid and strong. The tone of the guimbri’s strings has a slappy percussion built in, check out “Broom” for a example of its power. Is that tital track how pigeons hear the pull of the Earth’s poles? Or maybe it is just Ben Boye on the chromatic electric autoharp? It’s a strikingly cute little section on an often more pensive album. I’m going to file this in KFJC’s “jazz” library to be near the previous release, but like that LP, this is a genre-bending beauty, “The Ladder” is a sorta country and western number with a new age vibe conceived somewhere in northern Africa. “Spiral Up” launches with a slow and strong solo from Abrams which eventually connects to some great guitar chords off kilter and then on, sliding off and on over the course of the song. The first disk though was the winner to me, “By Way of Odessa” is a series of opening doors with subtle shadows all over it. The band moves as one and is relentless on that. On “Lore” Abrams let’s his mates shimmer a mood into space and then loops his bassline into a groove with Drake doing the hand-thrive jive on top, it concludes to be rejoined by Abrams on a clarinet prayer. Before “Broom” takes us to the ancient heart of this release. While Abrams may draw inspiration from an instrument and melodies older than our country, he’s got it right at the forefont of ongoing Chicago creativity. Feels like this project is on its way to more and more mighty music, Eremite induced. Do not miss!

-- Thurston Hunger, KFJC

Despite the inherent iconoclasm of the frontline horns & the force of their interrogation of timbre & tone, the drummers were the real engine of change in free jazz. Change the time, shuffle the rhythms & the effect can be seismic. While Sunny Murray & Rashied Ali broke down time & ruptured rhythm, players like Milford Graves & The Art Ensemble of Chicago pushed the groove to critical mass with a torrent or organic polyrhythms.
Joshua Abrams comes out of Chicago, a still significant hotbed for marrying groove-based approach to free improvised Afrofuturism; his own take builds on the the rhythm science of the past while suggesting the possibility of new marriages of time & timbre. His central instrument is the guimbri, a three-stringed North African bass lute, but he doubles on bass, celeste, clarinet, small harp & bells alongside Hamid Drake on frame drum, conga, tabla & trap kit, Jeff Parker & Emmett Kelly on electric guitar, Lisa Alvarado on harmonium, & Ben Boye on chromatic electric autoharp. The instrumental line-up posits a kind of strange strings approach akin to Sun Ra’s or even Harry Partch’s, & the music seems to exist in a fantasy fourth world zone, a fever dream of new American music with an international & historically wayward umbilical to non-western idioms & 20th century minimalism.
The Sound is deep & tonal, with the kind of booming bottom end that define the dislocated aspects of Skip Spence’s drum & bass masterpiece, 1969’s Oar. It provides an unexpected counterpoint to the group’s explorations, which the title suggests might be seen as a sort of spontaneous birthing of form from the dark gravity of certain bass frequencies. To allow yourself to be led, not compositionally but by weight of tone, by the pull of certain vibrations, means the music develops slowly, organically, a repeating phrase drawn from an insistent pulse, a rhythmic gesture that implies a tonal counterpart. Like Spence’s Oar, it has the feel of acid, of psychedelic extrapolation where the players surrender— or are at least open— to a synaesthetic engagement with forms, where time & timbre become confused. It feels startlingly new, in terms of how the music is extrapolated, how the players relate, even as it feels like an ur-music, primal, body-centered, essential.

-- David Keenan, The Wire

On Magneto­ception (Eremite), the new double album by the Natural Information Society, Joshua Abrams improves upon the hypnotizing single-chord music he’s been finessing over much of the past decade, forging a sound that’s less dependent on the traditions of north and west Africa but still retains their ritualistic power. Past recordings reflect his ensemble’s shifting, ever-changing personnel, but the new record was developed with a fixed lineup, and most of the pieces reveal a heightened sense of direction. Driven by the twangy thrum of Abrams’s guim­bri and Hamid Drake’s morphing frame drum and tabla patterns, opener “By Way of Odessa” rises and falls as the guitar playing of Jeff Parker and Emmett Kelly coalesces and separates (Ben Boye’s chromatic electric Autoharp adds a complementary glow). "Translucent" is less meditative and more demonstrative, with slaloming guitar lines bathing the tintinnabulation of bells, while the dampened guitar lines on “Magnetoception” summon a kind of Krautrock ferocity. The mesmerizing qualities are undiminished—in fact, the sharper focus works to thicken the hypnosis, as improvised passages flow in and out of imperturbable grooves. This performance comes at the end of a U.S. tour, so I expect tonight’s terrific lineup—Abrams, Kelly, Boye, harmonium player Lisa Alvarado, and drummers Frank Rosaly and Mikel Avery—to reach deep inside the material and find loads of fresh possibilities.

-- Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader

Every release from Chicago improviser Abrams delivers music of cosmic ethnographic sublimity. Musically akin to the likes of Don Cherry and later William Parker (both of whom percussionist Hamid Drake is deeply connected to), this artist and his ensemble utilize various folk instruments (guimbri, harmonium, harp, frame drum and more) to create a river of improvised sound that travels the ancient songlines, picking up African and Asian elements along the way. There is some nice African desert-sounding guitar in the mix as well. Abrams is one of the key figures in the contemporary improvisers world. He’s traveled some distance since his days as bass player with The Roots.

-- Andujar, Peace&Rhythm

Having a hard time figuring out if the new Joshua Abrams album, Magnetoception (Eremite, 2LP) is prog or what. Lisa Alvarado's harmonium combines with Hamid Drake's drumming in a way that makes certain passages remind us of a slow-core version of Tony Williams Lifetime. But other big chunks --especially those where Josh's strings take the lead-- come off more as some previously unknown Eastern European prog monster getting into deep roots expansionism. & other snug pockets recall the long-form trance states achieved by Chicago's Bitchin Bajas with added hand-drumming. But whatever it is, the music sounds great. And it'll suck yr head into its mix faster than a renegade Hoover. Beautiful stuff.

-- Byron Coley & Thurston Moore, Bull Tongue Review

Josh Abrams is perhaps best known for providing the low end in turn-of-the-millennium minimalist improvising quartet Town & Country, but his adaptable skills have long graced Chicago's post-rock/outer-jazz multiverse. Under his own name, he's released a brace of compelling albums that alloy freeform jazz, classic minimalistm, ambient drone & African music. Now Magnetoception builds on those prececessors' promise, the adroit ensemble including percussionist Hamid Drake, guitarist Jeff Parker, & harmonium player Lisa Alvarado helping Abrams form lengthy, immersive pieces based around his upright bass, celeste & guimbri (a three-stringed African lute). The opener, "By Way of Odessa," 16 minutes of restrained, steady state drift set the contemplative, richly textured tone, while the more urgent "Translucent" marries Tortoise-like riffs to African township jazz & the title track's scuttling intensity brilliantly evokes the symphonic clamour of cities at rush hour.

-- Davis Sheppard, Mojo

In a recent Invisible Jukebox interview in The Wire, Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams speaks about “constructing an environment” through his music. “One is creating a space to immerse the listener in sound,” he explains, “and creating room for slowness, for a different rate of attention perhaps.” Magnetoception, Abrams’s third Natural Information Society album for Eremite, demonstrates this concept wonderfully.  

Fans of 2010’s Natural Information and 2012’s Represencing will find themselves in familiar territory here, marked most notably by Abrams’s guimbri (among his other instruments) but also by Emmett Kelly and Jeff Parker’s electric guitars, Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium, and Ben Boye’s autoharp. (Hamid Drake, a new addition to this particular project, plays a variety of hand percussion as well as drum kit.) But as a double LP Magnetoception gives the group a new opportunity to stretch out, breathe, and craft an immersive sound environment.

The album opens with “By Way of Odessa,” a side-long piece whose meditative ambient patience, punctuated by Drake’s frame drum, focuses the listener’s attention not by grabbing it but by creating space for it. Eventually the guimbri picks up, before dying down again. The rise and fall of the track’s energy foreshadows the album’s larger structure, more an organic sinuous movement with multiple climaxes than a simple linear escalation.

One climax comes at the beginning of the third side with “Translucent.” The tune’s odd-meter ostinato, carried by the guitars and Abrams on acoustic bass, keeps us entranced but alert, as if we’re burrowing down towards the heart of something, yet not quite there. That heart might come soon enough with the title track. “Magnetoception” finds the album at its densest and perhaps most dramatic, a tightly woven sonic textile of jittery muted guitar, insistent guimbri, and tireless drumming. The group’s natural, protean interplay is in evidence here too, with Drake wrenching the breakneck 6/8 groove into a shuffle for a few glorious bars at one point. Elsewhere brief solo interludes like “Of Night” (Abrams on clarinet) and “Of Day” (autoharp) provide contrast and help contract the scope of the music before opening out again.

“The Ladder” brings things to a close with mid-tempo interlocking guimbri and tabla overlaid by shimmering autoharp and carefully measured guitar lines. This final track leaves us neither too high nor too low, but safely in the middle ground of the album’s dynamic energies. And if Abrams is as inspired by the Gnawa tradition of ritual healing as he is by their use of the guimbri, then “The Ladder” can be said to deliver us out of Magnetoception’s restorative environment better than we entered it.

Magnetoception is available in an attractive LP edition limited to 875 copies or as an iTunes download. Listen to samples on the Eremite website.  

-- Eric McDowell, The Free Jazz Collective