Thollem’s Astral Traveling Sessions – Thollem / Nik Francis

When Astral Spirits announced this year-long series documenting some of Thollem McDonas’s collaborative recordings made in the last few years, I was immediately intrigued. As the series has unfolded the list of collaborators has grown to include the likes of Susan Alcorn, Tatsuya Nakatani, John Dieterich, and so many others, that initial excitement has been rewarded. This recent edition with percussionist Nik Francis, though, is my favorite of the series so far.

Throughout these pieces, recorded live at Rhizome in Washington D.C. in December 2019, the duo traverse through every timbral spectrum, harnessing dead calm in one moment and discordant catharsis in the next. The opening piece features Francis roar to life immediately, blasting out controlled sonic chaos that, with the volume pushed up, fills your entire body. His playing is so physical that it’s as if you can see the sounds radiating from the speakers. Thollem fills empty spaces with angular synth riffing that teeters between a guttural howl and funky glass shards spilling from the sky. It’s one hell of a memorable way to open the session.

In the third piece, McDonas turns his Blofeld into an organ and channels the spirit of Jimmy Smith, imbuing it with unbound freedom. There are moments where he dives into vaporous, underwater drones that flit between feeling ethereal and downright horror-inspired, before ascending to higher frequencies. Francis matches him the entire way, cascading cacophonous, free-flowing rhythms that hit you right in the gut. Again, the physicality of his playing is incredible.

The quieter moments, like the twinkling chimes and thunder-like rumbles of the second piece, do an amazing job of offsetting the raucous abandon of most of the session. There’s a section early on where Thollem gazes skyward with his synth tones and Francis pulls the percussion back to a soft breath and gentle scrapes that are oddly beautiful and poignant. As it coalesces into a heart-pounding stomp, it’s like passing through a gilded door where the real prize awaits. Francis and McDonas then let go of the reins and push ahead to obliterate the cosmos. What a wild ride.

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