Put a Filter on your Ears and Just Smile Through It by Michael Hoppe

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Michael Hoppe (Get On! Records, LP/DL)
Put A Filter To Your Ears And Just Smile Through It

Michael Hoppe’s gloriously named Put A Filter To Your Ears And Just Smile Through It is a frenetic and ostensibly confused album, but one that is often as rewarding as it is infuriating. Opening with a poly-rhythmic horn section that suggests a work of classical minimalism, we are soon met by a flurry of incongruous bleeping synths, some gothic spoken word, and a faintly Pink Floyd inspired guitar. Hoppe could not be accused of being short of ideas – this barrage of fleeting possibilities is ongoing, and held together by the inclusion of virtuosic jazz percussion, with erratic hi-hats and urgent snare hits orientating a fairly mad ensemble.

Such is the degree to which the composer jumps between ideas – so quickly, and with so little evident logic – that it feels at times like a work of live musique concrete, an effect that I initially found somewhat jarring. It’s not so much that a lot is going on (though it is), but that each element is of such a remarkably different tone – at times ’serious’ prog or free-jazz, at others art-pop, and occasionally dadaist farce.  

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Despite my initial reservations, however, Put A Filter To Your Ears And Just Smile Through It is tied together by a wonderful sense of orchestration that belies its more frivolous tendencies. If at times the whole thing summons the less credible aspects of Frank Zappa or Mike Patton, it just as often channels the wonderfully magnitude of Sam Shalabi’s Land of Kush project, and if it doesn’t always make a great deal of sense, well, I suspect that’s sort of the point. Hoppe toys with his listeners expectations – on the one hand, we are offered fairly recognisable, and extremely proficient ‘throw-everything-at-it’ free-jazz; on the other, there is a underlying (and not always subtle) sense of humour that betrays many of the more ritualistic expressions upon which such affairs often rely. 

The album reminds me just how often this sort of music takes itself far too seriously, despite how inherently ridiculous – at least in terms of its culturally perceived deviation from more widely accepted structural forms – the whole free movement is. Indeed, Hoppe’s work is far more enjoyable once you accept its slightly childish mix of virtuosity and humour, and set aside any reservation that you might be on the outside of some in-joke between the composer and his cohort.  

Even with the acceptance that things are likely to get knowingly annoying from time to time, the album perhaps suffers from a lack of dynamic range. There is an awful lot going on nearly all of the time, and it is almost a relief whenever things calm down – the second half of ‘Step aside, please’, with its distinctly Areski-inspired vocal, stands out not because it is a particular strong section, but because it offers a much needed break from the albums otherwise semi-continuous onslaught.  This is not to say its over-riding aesthetic is bad, just a little tiring – I imagine its impressive energy and wit would make for a phenomenal live experience, and ‘Have you heard of Indonesia’ is a particularly fine composition regardless.

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The album is no doubt problematic, perhaps even off-putting in its sheer arrogance, and yet every listen reveals greater and greater depth, and I can’t help but find Put A Filter To Your Ears And Just Smile Through It an increasingly charming proposition. If it is hard to know exactly what Hoppe is going for – or how much the more excessive tendencies are deliberate, for all of their discordance – then this only contributes to the aura of the album as a whole.  I am left with the feeling that Hoppe could have, if he so wished, constructed an extremely competent free jazz album, but an inherent and inescapable sense of humour and provocation has pushed things in a different, less immediately palatable direction.  The more I listen, the more I am convinced by this approach, and only wish that its humour was handled with the same deft touch as its instrumentation.

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