Review: Chamber Music From Hell
On August 1st, Chris Opperman releases his bizarre new crowd-funded album, Chamber Music from Hell. A marked departure from his eclectic fusion album The Lionheart (2010), Chamber Music from Hell ventures into an academic space that is equally modern and aesthetically unhinged, inhabiting a heady space somewhere between gesamtkunstwerk and a Frank Zappa tribute.
Chamber Music From Hell is a thirty-five track CD, accompanied by thirty-one pages of colorful liner notes. Part command prompt text and part conceptual artwork, the liner notes, unconcerned with explanation, serve as a kind of extended subtitle, writing out the inter-track dialogue. Not that any explanation would be needed anyway. Over the course of the album, the social gripes that underlay Chris’s dystopian vision of the future—runaway consumerism, pernicious AI, failed democracy, and perhaps most heinous of all, underpaid adjunct professors—become abundantly clear.
The tracks themselves are a grab-bag of content, alternating between soundscapes punctuated by glitchy, robotic prose (as in literally, spoken by robots) and musical selections both synthesized and live recorded, which mostly originate from Chris’s time as a doctoral student at Rutgers. Though the pieces were written at different times and for different reasons, Chris manages to deftly stitch the musical works together by imposing a loose, comically ironic and cynical narrative on the album that chronicles his fantastic vision of humanity’s descent into hell.
The music on this album varies widely—very widely—in style. Tracks like “The Fermi Paradox” and “Cribbage Variations” nod to the second Viennese school, while tracks like “The Black Ball” don a more theatrical, prog-rock attire. Then there are the shorter numbers, such as “Waking Up,” a luscious, film-score styled string orchestra tribute to Sam Harris (whose spirit, Chris admits, looms large over the whole album), and the improvisatory sounding “Echoes of a Dark, Still Night”, which exclusively features an electronically manipulated, unaccompanied Trombone.
“Owl Flight”, a 5-minute work for percussion quartet, stood out as the album’s most exceptional track. Spacious without being excessive in scope, and simple and direct in method, the piece delightfully elicits subtle, pitter-patter textures from groups of cymbals in a way that cleverly avoids the clichés of percussion ensemble writing, while creating something that is uniquely Chris’s. Unafraid of thin or exposed texture, “Owl Flight” gives itself room to breathe in way that few of the other tracks on Chamber Music from Hell accomplish.
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