Back in 2007, French ambient guitarist Richard Pinhas, accompanied by longtime collaborator Jerome Schmidt on electronics, played to a packed house at the Velvet Lounge. Tomorrow, Pinhas returns, this time at La Maison Française with another collaborator twiddling knobs (or staring at a laptop screen): Masami Akita, better known as Merzbow. This kicks off the final weekend of this year’s remarkable incarnation of Sonic Circuits.

The average vaguely curious music listener has probably heard of Merzbow, but who’s this Pinhas guy?

He’s has been active for over 30 years; fans of obscure prog-rock know him as the leader of Heldon, an electronic rock band whose prolific 1970s output started in Fripp/Eno territory and ended up somewhere much closer to King Crimson. Even before Heldon’s eventual demise (their final album, Stand By, was released in 1979), Pinhas embarked on an equally fruitful solo career, one that has only picked up in recent years. In 2008, Pinhas and Merzbow released their first collaborative album, the remarkable Keio Line, which we gave very high marks. Now comes the sophomore effort from this duo, Metal/Crystal, out this month on Silver Spring’s Cuneiform Records.

Oddly, the record is credited solely to Pinhas, although it contains contributions by Merzbow, Wolf Eyes, and a host of musicians formerly from Heldon and Magma, including bassist Didier Batard and drummer Antoine Paganotti. The presence of a rhythm section on Metal/Crystal immediately lends this album a very different feel from its predecessor. Much of the first disc of this two-disc set feels more like late-period Heldon than Keio Line; accessible bass lines and clear rhythms give the three long tracks on disc 1 a fairly straightforward electronic rock sound. For those hoping for more of the same subtle yet nuanced sonic wallpaper of Keio Line, this might be disappointing; however, those folks might get more mileage out of disc 2, in which 40 minutes pass before there is any sign of a rhythm section.

In fact, “Hysteria (Palladium),” the 28-minute first track of the second disc and perhaps my favorite on the whole album, swings all the way to the inaccessible side of the spectrum, featuring lengthy high-pitched squalls with Merzbow’s trademark throbbing noise percolating underneath. It’s a far cry from the thumping rhythm of parts of the first disc, but it’s a welcome change of pace and a sign that even with literally hundreds of records under their collective belts, Pinhas and Merzbow still have interesting things to say.

It should definitely be worth the time and money to listen to them speak in their particular languages of noise tomorrow night at 8 p.m. With the help of a firmly placed set of earplugs, of course.

Photo of Richard Pinhas courtesy Cuneiform Records