Pillars and Tongues – Protection

Improvisation has long been the hallmark of blues and jazz music, but don’t dare try to pigeonhole Chicago-based trio Pillars & Tongues into any sort of free jazz box with John Zorn or Sun Ra. At times, the soundscapes generated by Evan Hydzik (double bass, vocals), Elizabeth Remis (violin, vocals), and Mark Trecka (vocals, organ, percussion) on their debut album, Protection, sound downright biblical. Surely, this connection is due in part to the associative imagery of the band’s moniker. Ironically, the music here is particularly light on tongues of any kind; vocals are used sparingly, and most of the soundscapes present a fragile juxtaposition to the notion of a massive pillar. Frequently however, the band’s evocative blend of blues, trance-like ambient, folk, jazz, and psychedelia feels like taking a walk through a sidewalk bizarre in the Middle East. With a predilection for Eastern-flavored harmonies, these troubadours of spontaneous composition have crafted an album that will frustrate those looking for a quick fix, but will reward anyone who possesses the patience to let the band work out its meditative jams.

Pillars & Tongues may not publicly endorse any one religion, but all of four of the tunes on Protection possess an undulating sense of spirituality. “Hall Of Bliss,” the album’s first and shortest song, shows the band’s core trio using pastel drones, tribal drumming, and crystalline strings to generate something that would make fine soundtrack material for any pre-battle sequence in a war film; soldiers taking one last moment for prayer and respite before the enemy approaches. Both Hydzik and Remis play their bass and violin beyond its classical conventions, conservatively employing dissonant double stops and chime-like harmonics while an inconspicuous melodica generates further harmonic tension. The whole event is so subtly executed that you don’t realize how much was actually transpiring until the drums abruptly cease and the song trails off into silence after just four minutes.

The next song, “Dead Sings,” captures the band at its most sublime. The first part of the tune feels rather cinematic again, as bluesy harmonica, auxiliary percussion, and a confident double bass groove provide a fitting backdrop for Indiana Jones as he navigates the chaotic streets of some exotic city. Because the band is so adept at understatement, even Trecka’s vocals, which finally join the party at the 1:45 mark, don’t really shock or surprise. But with their uneven phrasing and primordial imagery, the lyrics are a welcome addition to the band’s instrumental stylings. Trecka practically steals the show on this song, gradually building his drumming to the point where you sense he might be on the verge of collapse. And then just when this spastic freak-out feels like its going to swallow the song whole, he imperceptibly locks into the groove of the double bass, and everything again becomes clear. The manner in which Trecka manages to pull the whole thing off requires multiple listens to truly appreciate. When the drums aren’t dominating the mix, Pillars & Tongues comes across like a more organic and earthy version of ambient drone masters Stars Of The Lid.

The album’s two final tracks, titled “Protection (I)” and “Protection (II),” provide a more exhaustive and expansive version of the band’s wayfaring tendencies. At fourteen minutes apiece, that’s adequate opportunity for the group’s slowburning ways to unfold naturally. From ominous bass clarinets, airy flutes, and gossamer female chants to percussive noodling, bass slaps, and lyrical gloom, these two cuts have a little bit of everything. Impressively, the former track is set up in an arch form (much like modern classical composer Henryk Górecki did on his somber Symphony No. 3), with a frenetic middle section being bookended by two doleful string passages.

Spacious, astral, occasionally frustrating but nonetheless mesmerizing, Protection is an album for the headphones. Just remember to bring your patience with you. If you make it to the end, the rewards are many.