GROB 315
Steamboat Switzerland - Budapest
GROB 316
Steamboat Switzerland - ac/dB [Hayden]



Over two years after Steamboat Switzerland hit the (post-) improv and (post-) noise
scene with their Live CD, only now do the long awaited follow up CDs appear. If
the debut CD presented a patchwork of improvisation, own and foreign compositions
and rock pieces, Budapest and ac/dB [Hayden] are compact, integral and equally
imploring monolithic works. And yet the two CDs couldn't be more different.
Budapest is the result of a purely improvised concert they gave in Danube metropolis
in the Fall of 1999. The noise and prog rock roots have been compressed so much that
there are no more clichés nor more citations, only tension that bursts asunder. The CD
was mixed and co-produced by Stephan Wittwer, who contributed the intro, a little
gem about the state of being chopped up. The grunge track that the band played
following their improvisation, as an encore, is also a composition from Wittwer.
The liner notes to this CD were written by Dietmar Dath.
ac/dB [Hayden] is a clash of two compositions: "dB" is a work that the English
composer Sam Hayden exclusively wrote for Steamboat Switzerland. On the CD,
"dB" alternates with "ac," a collective composition of the band's members, Dominik Blum,
Lucas Niggli and Marino Pliakas. Both pieces rub against, wash around and
contrast each other as well as radically questioning each other. Thus, an uncommon
tension-filled opus comes into being, that (as dumb as it may sound) is more than the
sum of its parts. ac/dB [Hayden] demonstrates how powerful, explosive and, well yes,
swinging new music can be. Or is it really the progressive music of the »now time«
that simply blows away the entire postrock of the last few years and makes us forget
it all?
Two CDs were necessary (they function autonomously) in order to give a halfway
decent picture of the band. It was worth it. Deeper and deeper in the uncanny
intimacy of abstraction!
Attention!: Budapest and ac/dB [Hayden] are also appearing together in a box limited
to 200 copies. This box will exclusively contain a single with unpublished tracks
(a.o.th. feat. Simone Vollenweider, voc.). ac/dB [Hayden] will also be released as an
LP and is only available directly from the label or band.
c+p GROB 2001

STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND: Budapest (GROB 315, 2001)

Yeah, sure. It figures. Budapest. Of course.
Where else would you record something like this, and how else would you name it, provided
your wits are keen enough to record and/or name it at all? From the dizzying heights of the
ErzsŽbet Tower overlooking the sprawling complexity that is Budapest, where on clear days
you can just barely make out the menacing silhouette of the High Tatra Mountains more than
200 kilometres distant, these intermittent Hammond cadences and screeching aural
rollercoaster rides tumble all the way down to the rumbling Metro underground beneath the
city, crossing under the River Danube. Digging themselves in, they«re shaking the foundations
of high-modernist Bauhaus Buildings like the Napraforgó Utca-Housing Estate and the bell
tower of the catholic church in Városmajor. Call me literal-minded, but I submit that you can
even hear some of these buildings voicing their indignant modernist protest against this
newest and quite enticing spawn of eclectic neo-avantgardism in some of the pieces on this
album. Isn«t that the V‡rosmajor church bell ringing on "Budapest B", about 3 and a half
minutes into the track?
Modernism may protest, but to no avail. Resistance, as they say, is futile. It«s a different scene
now, be it in Budapest, Switzerland or even New York City. In 1926, people who were not
particularly good could do important work, but nowadays even people who are very good
cannot find important propblems to solve.
Unless they create them from scratch. Which is just the way things are with Steamboat
Switzerland. Hammond organist Dominik Blum, electric bass player Marino Pliakas and
drummer/percussionist Lucas Niggli must have realized in the very beginning of their
common project that the desired effect of urgency and pressure in music nowadays cannot be
generated by traditional means, which have mostly been snatched away from artists by
automata. I.e.: under conditions of electronic music production, where timecode (clocking),
synchronization and accuracy as well as sustaining and modifying the dimensions of pitch and
hum have become mere technical issues of frequency stability and encoding, the desire for
"heaviness" as a quality in and of itself (which once predated and fostered modernist noise
experiments) may be rekindled and satisfied in ways which are both truly
new and truly insistent only if you undermine worn-out notions of "dynamics" and "power". For it is the
most troubling duty of latter-day heavy improvisational music to try to escape the boring
"control/sloppyness"-dichotomy that burdens countless obsolete delusions of improvisational
"freedom" to this day. Steamboat Switzerland lust after nothing less than the SWING which is
generated between those polar opposites of control and "letting it all out", a swing that can be
attained only at the expense of no longer allowing yourself "emotional" investments in the
poles themselves.
Joined by producer (and in some instances, composer) Stephan Wittwer, Niggli/Blum/Pliakas
thus have set themselves the task of creating a moving interface between the issue of second-,
third- and fourth-order heaviness and the resources of exactitude that the traditions of their
skills, their conceptual mainframe and the historical sequence of discarded acoustic flotsam
and jetsam might offer. All three, that is: all four are of course seasoned avantgardists,
resplendent in academic backgrounds and concert experience, and as such they are well aware of the
timekeeping/clocking issue. Just listen to those percussive scissors on Track 5,
"Budapest D" un-selfconsciously clicking and clacking away, making the cut, going for the
jugular. But metronomic problem-solving-exercises of this sort, as well as the use of that old
crawl/explode-seesaw wich haunts all truly heavy music from its inception in the bowels of
European pre-modernist romanticism in Wagner and Bruckner (and their first truly modernist
emanation in Mahler), seem to be nothing but petty obstacles to be blown to smithereens in
the course of an experiment on a far grander - and groovier- scale. This experiment, a world
apart from simple-minded crassness, seems to pose the question: What if you could out-prog
Prog-Rock by flipping the funk at formats established by the respective pioneers of electrified
wails and collective improvisation? Steamboat Switzerland are not afraid of repetition. They
treat it - and deservedly so - as a door to intransigence, thereby gaining an affinity to
Motörhead, AC/DC or MC5 as well as "A Love Supreme" or the most exquisite torture
chambers of loopy ambient.
Like their first offering "Steamboat Switzerland: Live" from 1998, "Budapest" is made up
mostly of solidified shards ricocheting off a live performance. This one took place in the city
of the album«s title and was made over & mixed by Stephan Wittwer. Tracks 2-7 comprise the
main body of that concert. The first and last tracks, though, are elegantly wittwerized arcs
using encore material, thereby giving a sly nod to the intro-outro-tradition of bombast-rock«s
most cherished megalomanic concept-album excesses - yet with a clever twist to it: the "intro"
sounds more like a transition of something barely alive to a state of stasis and death, breath by
breath crawling closer to oblivion, while the "outro" boasts a stubborn groove of blood still
pumping forward; no doubt pumped ahead by pistons of bass and percussion, denying death
or silence even the small victory that "this, too, must eventually end". And that, friends and
neighbours, is the ultimate challenge Steamboat Switzerland poses, a challenge which attacks
every weary avantgardist«s litany of endless death and rebirth, triumph and tragedy,
surpassing and exceeding: Not everything dies.
© Dietmar Dath

Steamboat Switzerland - ac/dB [hayden] (GROB 316, 2001)

The stylistic and timbral world shared by Sam Hayden and Steamboat Switzerland within dB
recalls the so-called 'progressive', art-rock/krautrock excesses of the late 1960s to mid-'70s
but heard through the filter of many other styles, such as the jazzy added-note harmonies of
jazz-fusion, explicit allusions to integral serialism (dB[V]), rock (dB[VI]) and Drum'n'Bass
(dB[IV]), and the less explicit but ever-present additive rhythms of Dutch minimalism. These
many stylistic tropes are neither blended to such a degree as to lose their iconic power, nor are
they used only as fetishes - dB is not just an exercise in 'fusion' or 'ironic reference'.
Moreover, the integration of the written piece within Steamboat Switzerland's improvisational
practice builds on their previous recorded work (Live, 1998): their improvisations benefit
from interpolation with the more driving, rhythmically structured material of dB, allowing for
extended, freely timed exploration, and giving direction. The two major stylistic components
of their sound (whether one wishes to interpret them as being avant garde and hardcore is not
really an issue) have a clear affinity with the less commonplace aspects of both 'serious' and
vernacular music, and Hayden provides an extra, rooting dimension to these components with
his score.
ac/dB [Hayden] is the sonic result of subtle interplays between notation and improvisation.
First there is a distinction, which is pretty easy to hear, between the seven notated sections of
Hayden's score dB and the 'free' improvisations which link them. The relationship between
these two types of material is a curious one: does Hayden's material comment on Steamboat
Switzerland's, or vice versa? Or is it more that the practise of both parties becomes mutually
enriched? The second distinction, which is perhaps harder to hear, is between Hayden's
notation and the interpretation provided by Blum, Pliakas and Niggli. The score is much more
directive than many written for 'improvisers' - but this constraint itself creates a much more
vibrant tension between band and composer than would be possible with less conventional
styles of notation (graphic scores, proportional notation). Moreover, despite the complex
rhythms demanded by Hayden, there is always a sense of underlying rhythmic drive, which is
entirely in keeping with Steamboat Switzerland's sound world.
In some senses this music looks forward in its concentration on developing some of the more
recent concerns of contemporary music. In some senses, however, this CD is rooted in
tradition. The tradition I allude to here is that of the craftsperson - the performer or composer
as a repository of unusual and virtuosic skills - and this music is clearly crafted with some
traditional values. The demands placed upon the musicians by the score place it firmly in the
tradition of virtuoso concert repertoire. The final movement of dB's recapitulation of previous
material, and the cohesive harmonic and timbral language employed within the
improvisations and scored sections presents to us a familiar desire for organic unity within
music. That this unity seems so clear within a context of stylistic variety and viscerally
expressive interpretation and improvisation is a welcome surprise.
Collaboration, improvisation and polystylism have been, despite the occasional protestations
of high modernists and revisionists, common threads within much of the music of the 20th
Century. This seems to be true wherever one chooses to look. At the same time that Afro-
American musicians were continuing to develop their own alternative to the existing
vernacular and art musics of America, many composers and performers in the high-art
tradition found it impossible to maintain the romantic myth of the self-sufficient and
independent artist. At the end of this century, and the beginning of a new one, however, it is
useful to remind ourselves how this has always been true. Performers such as Steamboat
Switzerland, and composers such as Sam Hayden, remind us of the creative capital afforded
by a loosening of boundaries between composer and performer, between 'high' and 'low' art,
between improvisation and composition.

© Luke Windsor 2000

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