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nonkeen's new music captures the joy of lifelong friendship

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From schoolboy tape-trading to titanic post-rock

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Studio Spektral

Think about the people you’ve known the longest and best: your siblings, your summer camp acquaintances, the crew you met in undergrad and stuck with as you became adults. Do you ever find yourself connecting with them on some subconscious level? Maybe you hear a joke someone’s going to make in your head a nanosecond before they actually make it.

When you spend a lot of time in someone’s company, it can pay unexpected, spooky dividends. That’s a big part of the appeal of the gamble and oddments of the gamble, the two albums released this year by post-rock trio nonkeen: you’re hearing old friends create musical sparks by connecting at a level just beyond the veil.

It helps that one of those old friends is the composer and pianist Nils Frahm, one of the most popular classical-adjacent musicians working today. Frahm’s discography is full of music characterized by collaboration, improvisation, and restriction: tremendous minimal solo piano pieces doodled on the spot, and albums written and recorded live in the course of a single night. These releases are rarely groundbreaking — they’re part of a tradition extending all the way back to Erik Satie — but they’re always pleasant, and that’s because Frahm is a gifted, distinctive melodicist. Place him at a piano or keyboard, and you’re guaranteed graceful lines that unspool slowly like silver threads.

Frahm’s work as part of nonkeen is a little different. You can hear krautrock, jazz, and shoegaze rumbling through the band’s music. There’s a gritty, nervous energy that sets it apart from the rest of Frahm’s discography. You can chalk some of that up to the technology with which it was recorded. Frahm, Frederic Gmeiner, and Sebastian "Sepp" Singwald bonded as kids over their enthusiasm for tape machines, and they spent some of their teen years making radio shows and early music. (Singwald, who lived halfway across Germany in Berlin, would send recordings of his bass to Frahm and Gmeiner in suburban Hamburg.) When the three of them started to get together for the lengthy jams that would become the gamble and oddments of the gamble, they built on those early tapes: they sampled them, they vamped on top of them, and they recorded their new music with the same crusty, lo-fi machines.

It's hard to believe they came up with this on the spot

But you can’t give all of the credit for the album’s sound to decaying tapes and decades-old electronics. It’s remarkable how little the gamble and oddments of the gamble rely on the qualities that anchor Frahm’s other collaborative work: the delicate melodic ideas, the preternatural grasp on space and pace. He slips into the ensemble with ease, focusing on connection and spontaneity instead of gossamer beauty. the gamble’s "Ceramic People" is frenetic kraut-psych, the kind of music that could easily extend for hours without overstaying its welcome; "Chasing God Through Palmyra" is chunky, menacing jazz-fusion. oddments of the gamble boasts the best moment on either album, the grand "Diving Platform." It’s the kind of song you’d expect from a band like The Antlers, not a beloved minimalist and his gang of schoolyard buddies, and when you hear it slowly develop it’s hard to believe they came up with most of it on the spot.

If you’re the kind of listener who needs rigor to make it through a record, nonkeen probably isn’t for you. This is noodly, formless music, and there isn’t even much separating the gamble and oddments of the gamble — they’re more like fraternal twins than distinct projects. (When Frahm & co. cobbled together all of their material, they had enough music for two albums. the gamble’s February release was the result of a coin flip, and its warm reception gave them the justification they needed to release oddments this Friday.) If you’re okay with music that’s primarily interested in atmosphere, it’s fascinating to hear Frahm sublimate the skills that made him famous in order to find the perfect groove alongside people he’s known since. When you hear the band break "Diving Platform" open after two minutes or slowly drown themselves in fuzz on "World Air," it generates a deeper kind of satisfaction. It’s the sound of enduring, familiar human connection.