Graded on a Curve:
Kid Millions &
Sarah Bernstein,
Broken Fall

Broken Fall is the latest release from the improvising duo of Kid Millions, aka John Colpitts, and Sarah Bernstein. Across its seven tracks, she saws the violin and vocalizes while he batters the drums but good; together they heave forth a sound of wild abstraction drawing upon the traditions of experimental noise, free rock and avant-garde jazz. Heavy, lithe, raw and spirited, it’s out August 30 on vinyl and digital through 577 Records.

Kid Millions has drummed in a whole lot of contexts and has amassed an ample discography. In addition to handling the rhythms for experimental rock vets Oneida, he operates the bountiful solo project Man Forever, is half of the Oneida splinter duo People of the North with Bobby Matador, and has collaborated on record numerous times with Borbetomagus saxophonist Jim Sauter and as Fox Millions Duo with Guardian Alien drummer Greg Fox.

And of course, he’s half of Broken Fall’s powerhouse gush alongside violinist-composer-improviser-poet Sarah Bernstein. Originally from San Francisco, the NYC-based multitasker Bernstein has considerable varied credits solo (Exolinger), duo (Unearthish), trio (Day So Far, Iron Dog, Sarah Bernstein Trio), and quartet (Veer Quartet, Sarah Bernstein Quartet), plus a wide range of chamber works (from violin solo to large ensemble to orchestra) and film scores.

Amongst the descriptors Bernstein employs to communicate her thing: avant-jazz, experimental pop, and noise. And so, a seeming natural fit with Colpitts, with the fruits of their pairing abundant of Broken Fall. Actually, those hip to Tense Life, Millions and Bernstein’s prior collab for 577, which came out in 2017 on cassette in an edition of 50 (still available digitally on Bandcamp), were cognizant of their creative harmoniousness already.

Broken Fall extends the fruitful team-up as Bernstein’s vocals increase in prominence and the record’s overall heft leans deeper into improv-noise territory. And while Bernstein’s good (like, really good) at highflying avant-jazz string sailing, a whole lot of her playing here resonates like abrasive electric guitar, (achieved in part through electronic processing) and right off the bat in opener “Humint.”

Colpitts immediately jumps into high-energy rhythmic flow that frankly can’t avoid bringing Rashied Ali to my mind (not at all a bad thing), though he also brandishes rock muscularity that’s equally undeniable. But the other defining characteristic here is Bernstein’s singing (also electronically processed at times), much of it wordless but also derived from her poetry. It’s the first time in this tandem endeavor where her writing is used as lyrics.

With this said, I’ll echo 577’s PR observation that the text is “barely decipherable.” What might read like a deliberate obscuring fits with her wordless approach as the feeling shines through. While the record came with points of reference including Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson (I picked up on both, along with hearing a wee bit of Patty Waters), Bernstein’s vocals have a meditative intensity that stands out quite nicely.

“Humint” is fairly tidy as improv goes, connecting here almost like an introductory statement. The grind and glide of “Conditions” spreads out a bit, but really not that much. In fact, none of the seven tracks here break the eight-minute mark as Broken Fall offers a digestible 38 minutes. People who own a few 70-minute-plus compact discs of go-for-broke free improv might not consider that value for the money, but frankly, those long CDs could instill a bit of fatigue; I certainly can’t recall engaging in an immediate repeat play of one.

Broken Fall is concise enough that I played it three times in a row without a sense of exhaustion; yes, that’s significantly longer than one of those CDs, which relates to the LP’s construction. It all ends rather quietly (and intriguingly so) with “Guerdon,” but not before “Dies Infaustus” blends cord-soar, distorted string repetition and tub thunder. “Never Breaks” begins with aggressive pulsing/ rippling/ rumbling, but roughly mid-way through the track begins subtly transitioning into drift mode, and that’s sweet.

And at the start of “Dies Faustus,” Bernstein’s axe reminds me a bit more of a horn that a guitar (though it’s still recognizably a violin). As the track progresses, she whips up a circular string tangle that’s one of Broken Fall’s highlights (I can almost imagine the spirit of Henry Flynt up in the rafters, clapping). But hey, in the cut’s latter portion, she adjusts to an intensely reverberating grind that (speaking of Flynt) should put drone lovers on high alert.

Meanwhile, the Kid is hitting like the king of all sticks, with as much snare rattling as tom rumbling. And in “Sign This,” the guitar-like string scrape hits a level so wild that it’s kinda like Donald Miller (he of Borbetomagus) has entered the studio so that Bernstein can better focus on dishing those utterances. But no; she’s on top of both like a champ as Colpitts is just going for it. Broken Fall makes clear that as long as these two are a collaborating unit, inspired experimental racket is in no danger of going extinct.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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