Before he became Nick Cave’s trusted sidekick in the Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis was crafting acclaimed instrumental albums with his trio, the Dirty Three.
Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White have been making music together for 20 years, and their ninth album, “Toward the Low Sun” (Drag City), refocuses on their collaborative chemistry. In contrast to the group’s previous release, the 2005 album “Cinder,” which featured an expanded array of instruments and even guest vocalists (!!!), “Toward the Low Sun” is all about the expansive interplay of Ellis’ sensually melodic violin, Turner’s textured guitar and White’s one-of-a-kind drumming.
The musicians never cared much for traditional notions of band hierarchy, each functioning as a lead instrumentalist, the roles shifting with shadowy irregularity. White is crucial to that mix with the way he approaches the drum kit, using it to accent, disrupt and comment on the proceedings. In “Sometimes I Forget You’re Gone” and “You Greet Her Ghost,” the turmoil in his drumming topples expectations and amplifies the anxiety and regret in potentially maudlin or hackneyed scenarios. Ellis plays with a fever-dream intensity, conjuring the darker shades of East European gypsy and classical music. “Rising Below” ruminates in free space before the violinist coaxes it toward majesty.
Three of the first four pieces on the album edge into the chaos of free jazz, the instrumentalists coming at each other at odd angles, flirting with harmony and melody but never quite settling down. The context makes the autumnal grace of “Moon on the Land” all the more enrapturing. Similarly, the guitar violence of “That Was Was” sets up the hushed contemplation of “Ashen Snow.”
Though not quite as song-oriented as “Cinder” or as masterful as “Horse Stories” in 1996, the collision of the abstract and the beautiful on “Toward the Low Sun” affirms the Dirty Three’s enduring vitality.