The cover of the duo SpermChurch's album Merdeka Atau Mati.
The cover of the duo SpermChurch's album Merdeka Atau Mati. Credit: Courtesy the artist

Bassist Trevor Dunn has forged relationships with polyglot saxophonist and composer John Zorn, avant-garde reedist Ben Goldberg, and scads of other jazz-world luminaries. He plays on Diatom Ribbons, a career-defining 2019 record by jazz keyboardist Kris Davis, but his contributions have largely gone unheralded, subsumed in the overall greatness of the album. Despite these accomplishments, Dunn is still generally perceived as a rock-world experimentalist—he emerged from Northern California as a member of Mr. Bungle in the late 80s, then moved on to work within the Melvins’ sphere of influence. 

But Dunn has continuously expanded his sonic purview, most recently channeling that impulse into SpermChurch, a collaboration with Sannety (aka trumpeter and electronic experimentalist Sanne van Hek). Merdeka Atau Mati, released on the bassist’s own Riverworm Records, lives mainly in Sannety’s electronic sound world, with Dunn adapting to the setting. Even the album’s title is drawn from Sannety’s half-Dutch, half-Indonesian heritage; translating to “live free or die,” it served as a rallying cry of resistance fighters in the 1940s, when Indonesians fought a war of independence to liberate themselves from three and a half centuries of Dutch colonial rule. (Sannety had the phrase tattooed on her arm.) Its ten tracks consist of home recordings captured in 2017 and 2018, which seamlessly meld the two musicians’ approaches: Sannety worked with a unique software instrument developed in Max/MSP, and Dunn ran his electric bass through various pedals. They finished mixing in March 2020, and about a month later, Sannety passed away. Dunn went on to choose names for the pieces (they’d been using working titles), master the album, and design the artwork.

Merdeka Atau Mati is permeated with waves of drum ’n’ bass and chopped up with a semblance of jungle influence. Dunn and Sannety’s rapid, rhythmic movements often demonstrate a sublime minimalism. “You Thoroughly Want the Thing That Mounts” begins with a simplicity that creates a sense of anticipation, pushing open a compositional space that might’ve felt a bit overcrowded after the preceding track, “What Street Is This,” where dense drones and tinny, percussive gestures clash and cajole. The album’s first single, “A Puzzle & Not Intended for Use,” feels stalled out in its purposeful abandonment of time—but the confusion potentially created by such erratic moments is easily overwhelmed by the wonky charm of a rock-world veteran collaborating with an electronic experimentalist.

SpermChurch’s Merdeka Atau Mati is available from Riverworm Records.

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