I love the band Wombat. Iowa City’s most ferocious young free-improvisational trio brings the noise once again with Tapas de Wombat, an EP-length selection of shorter, more diverse tracks when compared to 2021’s great full-length Befriend the Giant. What kind of small plate tapas do Justin Comer (sax, objects), Carlos Cotallo Solares (guitar, electronics), and Will Yager (double bass, objects) serve up for us on the patio as a lovely breeze floats across the square? Opener “Albóndigas” (Side note: This album makes me hungry) reminds us of the trio’s M.O. right out the gate: All three conjure pure textures from their instruments that crash into each other in discordant whirlpools of quasi-rhythm, with plenty of open space left between each peal of sax or each whirr from the electronics for the sounds to melt away into.
The trio recorded these sessions in Baltimore, Iowa City, and Philadelphia, whether at live gigs or in deliberate studio dates, and the distinction between those contexts of recording doesn’t really apply in this case. Wombat needs the complete blank canvas of free improv, always live by definition, to paint over with texture and noise. They need to listen to each other to figure out on the fly what to play and how to fit into the developing atmosphere. A sense of constant surprise and diversity of tone animates each session, to the point that no one really wants to use the same tricks twice within the context of one four-minute blast. Solares might tear into a rapid-fire atonal guitar lead for a little while, but he doesn’t let that impulse entirely consume him and the sounds of his band mates. Yager actively switches it up between heavy pizzicato plucks on the double bass and manic, scraping bow work that can sound like anything from a wailing elephant to a piece of metal slicing across a blackboard. Comer gets a great chance on EP highlight “Pincho de tortilla” to really rip on the sax, as his playing flits between piercing upper-register volleys and purely chaotic sheets of sound-type runs.
Tapas de Wombat, especially in its second half, leans more heavily into electronic textures as backdrops for sessions than anything I’ve heard from the trio before. “Croquetas” (mmmm … once again, I’m starving) has a standing layer of humming, rattling synthesis over which Comer pours visceral sax leads. Of course, the line between what’s coming from an effects-drenched guitar and what’s coming from whatever electronics are in play is pretty impossible to define – and that adds to the sublime tonal disfiguration on display at any moment in a Wombat improvisation. If all of this sounds overbearing or too serious for its own good, the reality of the trio’s performances couldn’t be farther from that vibe. They’re clearly goofballs having a great time together. Even when their sounds veer into the maximum levels of abrasion or confusion, you can tell they’re excited about what they’re doing, and they’re on this journey because they love playing together – or, you know, they love serving us up some aural tapas to share with our buds on a warm spring afternoon.