Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society


Eremite Records MTE-68 LP


Abrams guimbri, bass, small harp, bells
Lisa Alvarado harmonium, Leslie, percussion
Michael Avery drums & percussion
Ben Boye chromatic electric autoharp, piano, Wurlitzer
Ari Brown tenor saxophone (B2)
Emmett Kelly electric guitar
Frank Rosaly drums & percussion, resonator bells


Track Listing:

Side 'A'
1. Maroon Dune
2. Ophiuchus
3. St. Cloud
Side 'B'
1. Sideways Fall
2. 2128½


recorded Chicago & Montreal, 2014 & 2015
producers: Abrams & Michael Ehlers
engineers: Thierry Amar & Cooper Crane
cover painting: Lisa Alvarado
screenprinting: Alan Sherry

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worldwide CD customers, & europe-based customers who prefer the non-silkscreened LP edition, order from glitterbeat. U.S. LP customers, you are here

Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society: Simultonality

the follow-up to joshua abrams's critically acclaimed 2015 album magnetoception is here. simultonality, credited to joshua abrams AND natural information society (NIS), is the first recording in the project’s nine year, four album history made by a regularly gigging manifestation rather than a special assembly of friends. recorded in 2014 & 2015 in single takes by the full ensemble during & after tours of the u.s. & canada, simultonality sets out new pathways for abrams & the NIS to reach the next summit, & once more affirms the project's unique approach to joining traditional musics, american minimalism & jazz with the gnawa ceremonial instrument the guimbri.

stasis, continuity & repetition, central qualities of abrams language, defined magnetoception, a double album of beautifully spacious & unhurried music that rated high on both piitchfork "the out door" & the wire's lists of the best records of 2015. these same qualities form the heart of abrams's music on simultonality. but where abrams once said magnetoception is about “winter & death,” simultonality —in abrams's words— is an album of “pure motion.” without sounding frenetic it is the most explosive NIS music on record, & without sounding over-determined it is abrams's most structured & thru-composed music yet. much of it is also fast  (“the last record was slow”), a mass of densely patterned elements swiftly orbiting constantly reconfiguring centers that are variously harmonic & rhythmic, clearly stated or implied. while so teeming & tightly packed as to sometimes seem impossible to parse, the music is at no time any more disorderly than a colony of bees pollinating a vast garden. its many moving parts function in mutualistic relationship toward fulfilling abrams's long stated intention for the project: to help listener’s achieve a meditative center & to consciously use music as a gateway to living. abrams credits the great bassist & composer william parker as an inspiration for this intention.

the musicians on simultonality date back to the nascency of NIS. along with hamid drake, mikel avery & frank rosaly are abrams first-call drummers for the project. abrams prefers two or more drummers in NIS whenever possible. on simultonality, avery is in the left channel, rosaly the right. the metallic shaker sound sometimes heard in the center of the stereo image is the rattle attached to abrams’s guimbri. astute heads may recognize the rhythm in “sideways fall” as jaki leibezeit's drum break in can’s “vitamin c.” at abrams behest the two drummers divided the beat into separate parts. according to hamid drake the rhythm was popularized, if not originated, by john “jabo” starks & clyde stubblefield of the J.B.’s. nearly ten years into its existence, abrams & the NIS wear their influences with creativity & ease.

long standing NIS members ben boye & emmett kelly were previously together with abrams, or not, in bonnie prince billy’s band, & abrams & boye have at different times played in kelly's band the cairo gang (boye & kelly are presently in ty segall’s freedom band). harmonium player lisa alvarado also contributes the large format pattern paintings used by NIS at concerts & for its album covers.

a note on simultonality’s closer, "2128½ south indiana". abrams is back on bass, as he was in the 1990s when serving as house bassist for the weekly session at fred anderson’s velvet lounge (address 2128½ south indiana ave, chicago). at the end of the night anderson often played alice coltrane’s journey in satchidananda as he re-stocked the bar & the musicians packed up their instruments. the open-form group improv that starts the piece makes explicit abrams & NIS's roots in free music culture, until the journey to the spirit of fred anderson & back to the glory of the velvet lounge begins. guest artist ari brown’s gently wheeling, prayerful solo comes from way deep inside chicago’s heavyweight tenor saxophone history.

along with the usual hooey about talent & vision, perseverance & sacrifice, great music just involves time. eremite released earlier recordings by this manifestation of NIS as bonus tracks —recorded 2012 & 2013 respectively— on our 2014 CD reissues of natural information & represencing. with the release of simultonality we at last definitively show the project’s direction of the last five years (& as anyone who heard abrams's november 2016 residency at chicago’s hideout knows, he is already moving on).

the eremite edition is pressed on premium quality audiophile vinyl by RTI, presented in replica audiophile dust sleeves & heavyweight stoughton laserdisc jackets screenprinted by alan sherry / siwa. edition 825 copies. direct retail mail order sales of eremite’s edition to europe will be capped at fifty copies. to grow the project into a second decade by reaching a wider audience, eremite is partnered with glitterbeat records (germany) to release simultonality on LP & CD in the european market on glitterbeat’s new imprint tak:til.

release date 07 april 2017. accepting pre-orders

Students of Chicago post-rock, jazz and its diaspora will recognize Josh Abrams’ name from sundry LP credits including Will Oldham & his own, underrated, Town & Country. For the past few years, though, Abrams has focused on shifting rhythm ensemble Natural Information Society, and a sound pivoted by the bass pulse he generates from a guimbri (a three-stringed North African lute). Simultonality is the most exhilarating manifestation of the project so far, as Abrams and a crack band (including Emmett “Cairo Gang” Kelly & Ryley Walker sidemen Ben Boye and Frank Rosaly) combine the devotional atmospheres of both jazz & gnawa, Terry Riley’s minimalist frenzy, and the skittering grooves of Stereolab & Tortoise. An LP of multiple vibrational highs —not least when tenorist Ari Brown channels the spirit of Pharoah Sanders three and a half minutes into "2128½." 9/10

-- John Mulvey, Uncut

Simultonality is the fourth fully-realized album from Joshua Abrams's Natural Information Society, & while it continues down the path of its predecessors, it's a truly remarkable record in & of itself. Simultonality is Abrams's strongest declaration of purpose yet, presenting his vision of ecstatic minimalism with striking clarity.

For more than 25 years, Abrams has played with everyone from tenor icon & AACM co-founder Fred Anderson to the Roots. Also, his hands are in seemingly every important Chicago post-rock project in between. He was in Sam Prekop's band, played on a milestone early Tortoise EP & was a member of Town & Country. Despite this breadth of experience, the focus of the Natural Information Society project has been nothing but consistent. In this platform, Abrams weaves his experience in experimental rock groups, study of postwar American composition, & training in jazz & North African trance-music traditions into an intricate array of continuously collapsing patterns of sound. You wouldn't be wrong to call this music meditative, but you'd be remiss to not also mention its relentless, momentous pulse. Early in his career, Steve Reich famously borrowed from traditional African musics. Simultonality strips from American minimalist music any sheen of secular, academic sterility & returns it to the source, albeit delivered by a furious motorik beat.

On most of these tracks Abrams plays a ceremonial instrument of the Gnawa of North Africa, the guimbri. The first Natural Information Society album to be recorded with a regular band, Simultonality also features guitarist Emmett Kelly, who Abrams has played with in the Cairo Gang & with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, & harmonium player Lisa Alvarado, whose paintings are hung to accompany performances of the group. One of these paintings has been reproduced for the album's cover, beautifully silkscreened by Alan Sherry of Siwa. Pressed on heavyweight vinyl by RTI, in a limited edition of 825 copies. 

-- Stranded Records

Even before the play button is pressed, Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society’s new album delivers two messages with crystal clarity.

The first leaps from the black, green, and gold-patterned graphic bleeding off the sleeve in all directions. The second is in the unwieldy Venn-like title Simultonality — perhaps a mutation of “simultaneous” and “tonality”?

This album continues the broad conceptual framework of Magnetoception and Represencing. That this new sleeve replicates these forms, but treated in flat colours, only adds to the visual and aural overlap at play here.

The work of Joshua Abrams has always reminded me of the composer Morton Feldman. In the academic paper Feldman the Rug-maker, Weaving For John Cage, music theorist Meg Wilhoite asserts, “There is an intimate connection between the rugs Feldman admired and many of the pieces he wrote in the last fifteen years of his life.

“These rugs set up an overall effect of sameness by systematically repeating a set of patterns, while at the same time disrupting this effect by slightly altering the components of those patterns.

“Similarly, Feldman wrote long works that produce a sense of skewed sameness by writing musical patterns that repeat many times, but change in intonation and/or rhythm almost imperceptibly.”

With Simultonality, we are invited into an extended exploration of interlocking sounds that take us on a musical carpet ride… Of course, there is a cool, conceptual air, but the reality, the actual music, is exhilaratingly beautiful and thoroughly human.

That may be because the music was created in a live studio setting, with a varied grouping of players. Everyone is a selfless component in the overall composition, knitted together in the construction of a vast aural textile.

This, to my ears, is Morton Feldman’s latter-day garage band.

Individual sounds fall Tetris-like into each other, as if every vacant space was designed to fit its neighbour.

A sound repeated is rhythm, and in the hands of committed musicians, there’s an opportunity to play with similar elements that mesh in ways that illuminate. With a high degree of subtlety, the repetition weaves pulsing textures. Individual sounds fall Tetris-like into each other, as if every vacant space was designed to fit its neighbour.

Simultonality is a palette of different densities and in its opening seconds throws the listener into its most rock-based posture. "Maroon Dune" has existed forever before the listener is invited in. Imagine the funkiest Fela Kuti drumbeat bleached in sunny Tropicália, and add harmonium wheeze.

The album moves through a series of fairly static blocks of sound, each with different densities and colours. Gaps and windows begin to appear as the album progresses; the music becomes more exposed and net-like. A slither of pristine electronic sound introduces the gamelan-infused gem "St. Cloud". Stringed instruments create patches of thick shadow as the sound tumbles forward.

You could argue that any one of these sound passages conveys the title concept or the sleeve graphic. Background info from the label suggests the drummers (one in each channel) are approximating CAN’s Vitamin C in the album’s 12-minute-long "Sideways Fall".

While it becomes apparent later on in the track, I had already joined the dots to something else. John Cale and Terry Riley’s Church of Anthrax is often maligned, but its unique double-drummed organ-led grooves and various pulsations have been gloriously and loving revisited here.

The last track "2128½" has its elements interlocking in a way that now resembles free jazz. Threads are loosened, the pattern is less conspicuous, but the proceeding tracks have all helped map out that, there is still nothing but glorious structure here.

For me, Simultonality sees Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society expand these approaches into a more varied setting than on previous albums. You could argue that any one of these sound passages conveys the title concept or the sleeve graphic.

The same concept could well have been attempted with cold digital means, and that would somehow miss the point. The organic, tiny imperfections only reinforce the magic at play here. Clearly, it’s a beautiful and exhilarating way of celebrating the avant garde, and a showcase of telepathic group musicianship. Importantly, it never fails to welcome the listener with warmth and humanity.

-- John J Nichol,

Existing somewhere between free jazz and motorik, Joshua Abrams has created yet another stunner within the compositions of Simultonality. Yet Abrams is not fashioning music from established genres, he and NIS are creating something wholly new and untethered. In a world of tumult and uncertainty, music that challenges our norms and places outside comfort zones may scare away those who need it most. But within chaos is calm, and Simultonality finds that Zen center in repetitious melodies and freeing exploration.

Abrams’ instrument of choice is the guimbri, used in Gnawa ceremonies. It’s rich bass reverberations, caused by slapping its strings, creates a unique sound for Western listeners. And considering how Western scales have invaded musical cultures the world over in the last 100 years, it’s interesting to hear an instrument designed for different time signatures and melodies to be placed into Western contextualization. Yet Abrams isn’t trying to wrestle the guimbri into our expectations, but is rather creating a bridge between the rhythms of Africa and the Western world. Perhaps its why reviews of past Abrams work have been centric on its jazz-like stylings; perhaps it explains that when these drastically different cultures merge within Simultonality, the results are best without words from our bastardized language. For all our invention and slang, it’s still hard to describe the feeling of utter freedom that is found in any work of art, yet it’s here.

It should be noted this is not a cheap purchase, and yet I can’t help but feel the price tag is not asking enough. Not because artwork of this caliber demands more from us monetarily (though it should, as it also asks for our patience and ability to cast aside what is expected for what just is), but because it is worth something more than music-pressed-on-wax. It took three spectacular albums for many of us to catch up to Abrams, but as my lungs burn and muscles cramp, I’m glad to have expended all this energy to be a part of Abrams and NIS’ latest phase.

-- Justin Spicer,

Or pantonality in the old money. Joshua Abrams’s bass and guimbri throb hypnotically over busy 8/8 drums on the opening track, while ancient creatures low piteously as they plod across a parched landscape. “Maroon Dune” has elements of minimalism, but also something of the harmonic richness and ensemble depth of the late Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Saxophonist Ari Brown in particular seems to come from that lineage, a declamatory player who favours orphic concision over the longform solo.

The other instrumental sounds are less familiar in this context: Lisa Alvarado plays harmonium and adds Leslie percussion; Ben Boye opens the rocky “Ophiucus” on chromatic electric autoharp; Emmett Kelly initially seems anonymous on electric guitar, but it’s his chiming chords that hold the structure together more often than not. There are two drummers: Mikel Avery and Frank Rosaly, the latter also supplying resonator bells and other percussion. It’s essentially the same group that made Magnetoception in 2013, though the earlier album had no horn part and Hamid Drake’s percussion was more linear and embellished than what we get here.

Abrams’s recent use of the guimbri, which is also favoured by fellow bassist William Parker, sometimes recalls the tagnawit music of the Gnawa (recently covered in a Wire Primer) but with an openness of structure that again recalls Haden, or perhaps even more, Carla Bley. There are moments on Simultonality that might have been lifted from Bley and Paul Haines’s Escalator Over The Hill. The limitations of a three string lute – the guimbri is also known across the region as the sinter – might seem obvious, but it is an instrument of high status, played by the Maalem or master of ceremonies in Gnawa ritual, and that is very much Abrams’s role. He appears to conduct the ensemble via subtle shifts in direction or dynamics.

“Sideways Fall” on the B side feels like a bit more of the same, but its intricacies soon announce themselves and it’s perhaps the strongest single item on the five-track album. “2128½” might be the street address of a property in Greeley, Connecticut, or it might be a reference to a star cluster in Gemini. Who knows? It’s a perfect place to kick back or to ship out and explore the heavens. Abrams lets you do both.

-- Brian Morton, The Wire