Thumbscrew: Convalleria

To record their sophomore Thumbscrew album, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara took part in a two-week residency in Pittsburgh, which allowed them to compose individually but work up the music as a unit. The extended stay proved to be fruitful. What began as a compatible, somewhat understated trio on their eponymous 2014 debut has evolved into a group where their strong personalities intertwine and create something greater.

All three musicians are known for pushing the envelope, but “Screaming Piha” journeys even further out. Following a brief, snaky theme, the music morphs into a psychedelic morass that’s one-part Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and one-part full-blown free improv. The way the trio controls and shapes the soundscape makes the performance unique-and the centerpiece of the whole album. The rest of Convallaria feels more grounded but no less exciting. “Sampsonian Rhythms” builds on a groove that Formanek uses as a springboard for some of his liveliest playing. Throughout the album his lithe touch allows him to act more often as a lead voice than as an anchor.

Halvorson is just as likely to play clean, crisp lines as she is to bend the pitch or add some bite by kicking on the distortion pedal. Like her, Fujiwara shows skill in pieces with shifting moods and volumes; as a soloist, the drummer makes a distinct impression on Formanek’s “Danse Insensé,” using an array of clattering percussion in a free-flowing showcase.

Improvised music has plenty of examples of musicians who work best under pressure. But Convallaria demonstrates the value of taking time to let the music grow.

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