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Sun Araw's Misty New Album Shows the Freedom of Improvising With Friends

'Activated Clown,' billed to S. Araw Trio XIII and due out January 11 on NNA Tapes, is colorful, intimate, funny, and free—everything formless music should be.
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Sometimes it takes a push from a friend to get you out of your comfort zone. That's part of the whole principle of collectivist improvisation—that a bud with an extra set of hands might scribble all over your masterpiece and cause you to view it in a new light entirely, and push you into new directions and new dimensions. Cameron Stallones, a musician who's spent the 10 years and change recording as Sun Araw and operating the experimental label Sun Ark, does a fair bit of exploratory and boundary pushing work on his own. His electronic compositions—though occasionally ambient in disposition or psychedelic in approach—aren't easily bracketed by usual styles or genres.


But Stallones' work really seems to take full flight when he has someone to bounce ideas off of, which he's done often over the course of this prolific decade in work. He's made soaring compositions with the ascendant Laraaji and cosmic reggae refractions with the Congos and M. Geddes Gengras, among a whole lot of other collaborative curios scattered across his Discogs page. Each is electric, and vibrant, full of the sort of freedom that only comes when you're working with new toolsets in untread ground. This week, he's revisiting one of those collaborations, S. Araw Trio XIII (which also features Jon Leland and Tomo Jacobson) for a new record called Activated Clown on NNA Tapes.

Recorded during a residency in Braga, Portugal, the record is a sprawling, otherworldly testament to the freedom that results from setting a group of trusted friends loose in an improvisatory way. According to press materials, the two sides of the record—each of which consists of a single piece—are themed around day and night, but even those thematic conceits dont really seem to limit what Stallones, Jacobson, and Leland do in practice. The structure is loose and fluid, bleeding from swirling ambient passages—like the bit that opens "Mantis Suite: Invitation to Love," where MIDI mallets patter like digital rain—into abstract jazz passages and jittery percussive bits that are harder to categorize. They seem to often mine their sample libraries for cheap-sounding electronics, but arranging them at in such a way that they still feel lush and misty—like a diorama of a jungle mocked up with toothpicks and silly string.

With each piece stretching north of 20 minutes, it could be a bit of an intimidating listen, especially as busy as some of the percussion passages get, but the trio are conscious to keep pushing each other to new places. The sounds never have a chance to stagnate, or to wear thin—you just have to join them on the journey, maybe you could find freedom too, somewhere out there.

Listen to Activated Clown up above, or head over to the NNA Tapes website to cop it in advance of its release this Friday.