Jason Kao Hwang/Critical Response: "Book of Stories". (2023) CD Review

by Michael Doherty, michaelsmusiclog.blog.com

Read at michaelsmusiclog.blogspot.com


Jason Kao Hwang is a violinist and composer with one ear in the present and the other bent toward (or perhaps already in) the future, his compositions moving in interesting and unexpected directions. There is often a strong narrative sense to his material, and so the title of his new album, Book Of Stories, seems apt. And most of the tracks on this release are of such length necessary to tell compelling and full stories. Critical Response is the trio of Jason Kao Hwang on electric violin, Anders Nilsson on electric guitar, and Michael T.A. Thompson on drums, all skilled at improvisation. You might know Anders Nilsson from his work in Fulminate Trio and his new band, Hesa Gun, and you might know Michael T.A. Thompson from his work with Patrick Brennan and several other artists. 

The disc opens with “The Power Of Many In The Soul Of One,” which begins with a lonely call out into the universe, a wounded cry from the violin, a voice reaching out hopefully in the dark chaos of the world. Then things seem to come into more solid forms from that darkness, and soon the violin is in communication with them, quickly adapting to its new surroundings, to its new companions. There is a relaxed, knowing sense to the guitar and drums, while the violin feels a great tension that needs to be released. Perhaps it is has found the right place to release that tension, a spot where it might be absorbed by the surrounding sounds. Sure, there is always risk involved, but the emotions are so powerful that they might overwhelm any need for calculation, for planning. Things start to relax, and a drum solo emerges from that, with the guitar and violin then offering their own thoughts, markedly different from what came before. There is something tentative as they step into this new area. And the drums again find themselves on their own, Michael T.A. Thompson delivering some fantastic work here. Things go in a more determined direction, and there is something officious in the sound, in the drive, before that power begins to unravel, to spread out in fragments of authority and portions of nerves. We are deep within this thing now, moving along the quieter center, where space has its own dimensions and desires, the track settling into a good groove. The violin returns to a more lonely place near the end, but its sound is different now, like it has found its place, knows its place, but still yearns for something more. Stable, but still in need. The guitar joins the violin in this now-familiar darkness. 

As “Upside Circle Down” begins, there is something youthful, playful, among the gadgetry, among the electric voices of the sprites as they dart throughout the house at night, knowing they cannot be caught, for they can escape along any of the wires. As the drums come in, things start to get more wild, more exciting, taking charge of the moment. It’s as if urging us to let loose, enjoy ourselves. There is a good deal of action, and it’s all in the name of seizing the moment. And soon we are treated to a good drum solo. It’s interesting how a drum solo can lead to a more solitary moment, even to a pretty, angelic voice, a striking presence standing still within a great shaft of light. The guitar then, when left on its own, turns inward and outward, and finds beauty in both places, and that seems to determine the direction that the instruments move in together. Memories and old faces line the streets but do not impede forward movement. Whispers of the past, and from the past, evaporate like wisps of smoke, light caresses on our skin. We need not even turn our heads, for we know where we are going now, and so there is no rush. Things have become gentle, and the groove is soothing. 

There is a somewhat eerie presence at the start of “A Silent Ghost Follows,” a creature from another realm that is making its way into our world through slight gaps in consciousness, a winged spirit that is soon dancing upon the branches, even upon the leaves, though it doesn’t seem to actually touch them. The guitar reaches out, and that darker, stronger, more cohesive theme is revisited, until the drums take over, rolling in like a subtle storm, carrying with it the spirits, or perhaps something larger. That theme confirms our suspicions, a monster is within. The violin then cries out, the wind behind it having a heartbeat, and we feel that thing is alive. The theme returns, and now it begins to feel like a cue, to turn the page, or to move backward in the story, or it is a reminder of where we are, pulling us back when we stray too far into the outer realms of this fun house. It seems something is about to be revealed to us if we can maintain our focus and not lose ourselves to fear or preconceptions or wishes. 

With “Dragon Carved Into Bone,” we are immediately welcomed into a strange and exciting place, where funky denizens offer bright concoctions and shove us along if we are too slow to accept everything being offered. There is so much popping around us that it might be difficult to respond to everything. Just let go and allow yourself to be tossed around, join the others doing the same thing, hurling themselves about without fear of injury. And suddenly a space opens up before us. We know we’re not alone, no matter what certain of our senses tell us. The others might be quiet, but they are nearby. Soon they let out little hints of their locations, and lead us farther into the electronic artery, and we are able to perceive that each movement is part of some larger dance. The drums then try to pull all that together, to organize the steps, to synchronize them, or unify them. And then, bam, creatures burst from the walls and just as quickly disappear. But there is a cool vibe to calm us, a delicious jam. Go ahead, have another drink, settle in, and enjoy the show, it urges us. And we do, and everything seems right, so that when things begin to turn strange, it takes us a moment to realize it. To realize things have changed around us, and maybe that cool place was an illusion, and the darkness and the uncertainty are what are truly real. The album then concludes with “Friends Forever,” which begins in a more bluesy realm, one of memory, of accomplishments in the past, which are acknowledged, appreciated, even loved, but not dwelled upon. For the past is a part of the future, and there is beauty everywhere, if you only look with eyes big enough to take in various times, and listen with ears attuned to the spirits. 

CD Track List 

The Power Of Many In The Soul Of One 
Upside Circle Down 
A Silent Ghost Follows 
Dragon Carved Into Bone 
Friends Forever 

Book Of Stories was released on June 30, 2023 on True Sound Recordings.