Graham / Hobbs / Nakatani / Shen “Scar’s the Limit”

Sometimes, the moment you see the line-up on an album, you know it will rearrange your brain will. With Scar’s the Limit, from the ground shaking quartet of Forbes Graham, Jim Hobbs, Tatsuya Nakatani, and Victoria Shen, the opening howl and skitter of “Scintillation Field” let you know what’s up. 

Nakatani’s scratching, clanging percussion sounds like a car crash underwater; metallic fragments shoot in every direction, obscured by imaginary aqueous structures. I’m always floored by his ability to extract so many unexpected tones from his kit, but certain moments of “Scintillation Field” push to the furthest extremes. Nakatani creates hellish walls of cacophony on his own and the remaining trio do an impressive job to fight back and create their own pockets of space. 

Shen bends her electronics from screeching feedback to snarling, guttural tones that need an exorcist to hold at bay. Near the end, in combination with Nakatani, it sounds like an old steam locomotive is barreling into the room, engines ablaze. Graham and Hobbs jam the brakes, their horns blowing in total catharsis. At one point, Graham’s trumpet rises above the smoke like a graceful figure cloaked in a magical light, gently roaring mournful tones against the chaos. The dichotomy is beautiful. Hobbs joins him at one point before falling back into the wreckage. The train roars back to life, but for a moment there’s a strange calmness.

Throughout the ebb and flow of Scar’s the Limit, Graham and Hobbs provide mercy. Early on Hobbs brings the proceedings back to the surface after an extended passage of subterranean sonic rumbling with contemplative sax explorations that command attention, even with the fires burning in the background. Eventually he gets  consumed and instead of giving in, unleashes a fury of searing scales. Graham tries to compensate, but even his runs become fuel to the ever-growing fire. 

Scar’s the Limit is everything I want from free improvisation. Unexpected combinations and sounds, at times proactive, reactive in other places, always searching for the next wave to ride before obliterating anything in its path. Take a deep breath and prepare yourself to climb this massive aural mountain.