Madison musician Eric Hartz's Voltress project continues to confound expectations with each new album. After debuting as an electronica band with vocals from Courtney Collins, the second Voltress disc from 2007 took an abrupt left turn into the forest of free jazz.
Antelopes was an entertainingly discombobulating experiment combining local rock musicians (from one of Hartz's other bands, Hum Machine), jazz and funk heavyweights (Roscoe Mitchell, Richard Davis, Bernie Worrell), and a whole lot of answering machine messages. The off-kilter nature of the combination was emphasized due to the way the recording was made; the various musicians mostly created their parts separately, and only were allowed to hear specific pieces of the sessions while tracking their contribution! Needless to say, the avant-garde nature of Antelopes wasn't going to be most listeners' cup of tea, nor was it intended to be.
In late October, Voltress returned with Moth, the second in a planned "animal kingdom trilogy." It's the latest release on Hartz's Shortwave Records imprint and maintains their now-standard packaging philosophy: a hand-screened gatefold jacket and screened art print by designer Sam Johnson of Firecracker Studios; 180-gram vinyl; and an inserted copy of the recording on CD. Like Shortwave's other original releases, Moth will only be available in the vinyl edition and as a download.
More importantly, though -- what's the music like this time around? Hartz and company are still keeping it instrumental for the most part, and have also followed essentially the same fragmented recording process. Hartz says the album was conceived as one long piece, but has been given some break points on the digital version. "One of the things we learned last time with two long songs was that on all the digital stuff, it's hard to weed through 15 minutes," he explains. "That's why I split [Moth] into movements. I've already gotten a lot better response from radio, for example, because it's easier to play specific parts."
There's again some found sound bites woven in, but at nowhere near the frequency or out-front nature of the answering machine message on Antelopes. Musically, Moth is a lot closer to '70s-style fusion than free jazz, though there's certainly some straight-up free-form segments to be found. Most movements are built on doomy piano runs, with an occasional drum or synth foundation. "On this one I had a little more direction and a little more time," Hartz says. "The process was a lot easier this time than last time, and I think that came through."
Overall, Moth is reminiscent of Pink Floyd's spacy transitional-era works such as Atom Heart Mother, if Roscoe Mitchell had been allowed to free associate over the top of it. Mitchell is indeed one of the players and credited as co-composer with Hartz. "I kinda wrote most of the piano parts and [Roscoe] took them and reworked them a bit with the saxophone parts, more so than usual. He did rework a lot of stuff on the saxophone," Hartz says.
Other previous collaborators back for Moth include upright bassist Matt Rodgers and Hum Machine guitarists Eric Geving and T.K. Also among the players are Chicago cellist Harrison Bankhead and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline.
"Hum Machine had played with Mike Watt when Nels was the guitarist for his band," Hartz says. "I just contacted him and told him I was working on this jazz thing. He and his brother are pretty much avant garde jazz guys -- they've been putting out records since the '80s. It was just a matter of getting the right date when he could do it ... eventually we got it figured out. I think he always likes to participate in jazz stuff -- he has a strong heart in that kind of music."
The final installment of the trilogy is planned for summer of 2011, and Hartz says that prior to this Voltress release, Shortwave hopes to do another reissue of a previously CD-only album. "Shortwave's next release will probably be something from the Pi Recordings label in New York. I have the permission to put something out, it's just a matter of picking something out and signing the contracts -- and when we have enough money to do it. It could be something from Thrill Jockey as well. It'll be a vinyl-only release from an independent label."
Shortwave's previous vinyl reissues of albums by the William Parker Quartet and Exploding Star Orchestra are already sold out. "I have more people wanting to do stuff than I can afford to do, " says Hartz. "We'll try to do a few releases a year and let things build. We're doing short runs and the records are unique -- once Shortwave puts something out, it doesn't get re-released because we destroy the screens and vinyl masters."