The Blue Ship – The Executioner’s Lover (avant rock)
self released 2013, DD album, 1h 26m 1s
You’ll hear a lot of familiar echoes in The Executioner’s Lover, but I can more or less promise that you haven’t heard anything quite like it. It opens with a song, ‘Half Life’, that is mainly arranged for ‘orchestral instruments’, but which also incorporates a rock rhythm section, which comes and goes at strategic moments; the song is a melodramatic number, which while it is not a ballad, has a narrative feel to it, like a piece from musical theatre or light opera. This is more or less the course followed by the album as a whole, but within those approximate bounds there is a huge diversity of compositional ideas and sophisticated musical devices. Main man (composer/ librettist/ guitarist/ vocalist/ pianist/ mellotronist) Paul Napier avows a debt to Alban Berg, and there are certainly audible traces thereof in the melodic and harmonic materials from which The Blue Ship’s music is constructed, as well as in the way that an initial idea is continuously varied and extrapolated over extended passages of music. There is also more than a nod towards that most theatrical of avant-rock bands, Cardiacs, although it has to be said that shifting musical materials from strings and wind to a rock lineup and back again illustrates just how much power orchestration has to influence the way we interpret, and the associations we bring to, a given sequence of notes. The frequent presence of an accordion imparts a central European flavour, and also illustrates how much music that sounds to Western ears like atonality and avant-garde invention can have in common with certain folk traditions. There is a great deal of gestural phrasing, accompanied by steep dynamic gradients, and dramatic tension is further enhanced by an extremely erudite deployment of dissonance and atonality; the latter is always encountered on the way from one key centre to another, so it tends to read as extreme chromaticism, and (to ears as perversely jaded as my own, at any rate) doesn’t induce any bewildering destabilisation of the songs’ tonal compass. All of this crazy shit is not employed, as it often is, in the pursuit of abstraction, but is directed (along with plenty of not-so-crazy shit, like the often Classical and Romantic sounding strings in ‘The Executioner’s Lover’) in the service of compositions whose affective narratives and verbal components (where present) are every bit as important as the notes and rhythms. These songs tell stories, stories with a witty, warped, intense and humorous sensibility, and the album as a whole has the feeling of an opera. Whether it’s a concept album or not I couldn’t tell you (I haven’t listened closely enough to all of the lyrics), but it resembles one, even before we reach the four part ‘The Executioner’s Lover’ suite with which it concludes. It almost seems churlish to mention the musicianship in discussing a release like this, in which the individual players, as in the Classical tradition, become transparent conduits for the composition, but suffice it to say, the better they play, the more transparent they become; here, there is nothing to hear but the music. I know my regular readers may be starting to think I’m a bit hyperbolic, but I do get sent a lot of music of an incredibly high standard: this album is utterly brilliant, not as composition, or performance, or idea, or orchestration, or production, but as all of these things and more. It’s a rarity and a treat to hear a creative vision as engaging, coherent and beautifully realised as this.
Kairos 4tet – Everything We Hold (jazz)
Naim Jazz Records naimcd191, 2013, DD & CD album, 53m 6s
£6.99+ DD £9.99 CD
Kairos 4tet are a well established young British jazz group, recent winners of the MOBO award for best jazz act and recipients of some very positive notices in the press. Standards are very high in jazz these days, and it’s a crowded field, so I wouldn’t dream of making such hyperbolic statements (despite my tendency towards hyperbole as expressed in the review above) as ‘the best new band to appear in recent years’ or ‘Adam Waldmann is one of the most important new voices on sax since…’; but I would say that they’re a very well schooled and capable band, and I would be very surprised if there were any area of popular or improvised music to which they could not turn their hands with great effectiveness. Unless you’re a singer (not to say that there aren’t many amazing singers working, but Jamie Cullum exists, sadly), you need to be an extremely good musician to get any attention in jazz these days, and so they are; but ironically, Everything We Hold is an album that explores song. Fortunately it doesn’t do so by running through some standards. The fact is that throwing some musicianship at some post-bop harmony via the traditional acoustic instruments, which is what the jazz audience seems to like, will never make excitingly innovative music, which is what I like, so it’s always good to hear people coming at things somewhat obliquely; around half the pieces on Everything We Hold are instrumental, but it’s easy to hear that the intention to explore song goes beyond including some songs. Kairos 4tet take an approach to their music which is far from transgressive, and fits quite happily into the consonant, soulful, ECM inflected tradition of European jazz, but the contextualisation of those pieces that are primarily a setting for improvisations among those with lyrical texts invites an active engagement with the differences and similarities between the ways that both types of composition signify. The album never smashes the listener over the head with difference or difficulty, but there is continual rhythmic flexibility, and (to use a term that will probably sound insulting or peculiar to jazz musicians) a mathy liking for off-kilter additive phrasing. This is a performing unit that grooves very hard indeed, and communicates extremely well; it’s a joy to hear the ongoing exchange of ideas and stress patterns within the rhythm section, and both as a writer and an improviser Waldmann knows exactly how to engage the attention with melody, and having caught it, how to take the listener with him when he goes exploring. Everything We Hold is not a radical album, and if you’re looking for striking novelty, look elsewhere; but with its incorporation of accordion and other slightly non-jazz instruments into the arrangements, it is a distinctive one, and it articulates a very specific creative voice. The playing is absolutely superb, and the sound is beautiful, so while it may not tear you a new earhole, it gave as much pleasure as I could imagine to the ones I’ve got.
st. quentin – Reality (progressive rock)
self released 2013, DD & CD album, 41m 9s
£4.99 DD (UK iTunes price) £? CD
Progressive rock has become a thing, having been an ostensible non-thing for many years; read the prog press (such as it is) or look at the line-up for most progressive rock festivals and you’ll see a huge diversity of music under that rubric, much of which would not have been described as progressive, still less as ‘prog’, until quite recently, when several things happened. It became increasingly untenable to reserve the term ‘progressive’ for music that wasn’t necessarily very progressive, and deny it to all kinds of very progressive rock music that didn’t sound like prog; people who were into the wider world of creative rock music became more likely to include the music conventionally referred to as progressive rock within the compass of their interests; and the prog audience began to open its ears to music that owed more to the post-punk, art-rock and noise-rock traditions, much of which is not only as creative, but also as technically and musically sophisticated as prog. st. quentin do not play in one of these recently-in-from-the-cold styles however, but are positioned stylistically on the border between prog rock and progressive metal, with a lot of heavy guitar chords and crunching riffs; this is a form of practice that has been instrumental in keeping the prog flame burning over the past couple of decades. Reality displays many of the defining tropes of the genre, such as rhythmically intricate riffing, long, multi-part compositions incorporating feel changes, and an emphasis on polished instrumental performances. This is a band that knows its way around music, as evidenced by its often sophisticated (if predominantly consonant) harmonies, its carefully crafted arrangements and orchestrations, and a profusion of erudite touches like the tierce de picardie with which ‘Something’ (no, not the Beatles song) concludes. Lyrically the songs are very sincere, and concerned with pretty serious themes; I have to wonder why, as a German band, they decided to sing in English however. I know a lot of German bands do the same, but as st. quentin’s singer has quite a pronounced accent (think Arnie in Terminator) and some of the sentence construction scans a little quaintly, this may get in the way of reaching some sections of an English speaking audience. It doesn’t bother me, and I appreciate knowing what they’re singing about, but I don’t really understand why people continue to pander to the now obsolete transatlantic monopoly in musical culture. This is a band which is positioned emphatically within the mainstream, and outwith the avant-garde tendency, of contemporary prog; the latter is where I invest most of my attention, but irrespective of that, Reality is full of creative musical ideas, very melodic, engagingly dramatic, powerfully kinetic and superbly performed. It’s epic in tone, emotionally committed, and about as accomplished an album as you could hope to hear.
Bruce Gramma – Insert Coin(s) To Continue
RhymePad Records 2013, DD & CD album, 30m 31s
£3 DD £5+ CD
I come from a small market town in East Anglia, that punches well above its weight. Do I say this because it was bizarrely granted city status in the 1950s? Is it because it plays host to an ancient university, or because the founding members of Pink Floyd went to school there? Because it’s the centre of the UK’s IT industry? Nah. Bollocks to all that. This is the town that houses RhymePad Radio and its associated label, bringing some of the best independent hip-hop to the audience with the nous to find it. Not famous, not rich, and not compromised; all of which applies equally to the artists they support, such as the hard hitting Bruce Gramma. I don’t know much about his life prior to the horrible lab accident that turned him into a radioactive rhyme-beast, rampaging in search of beats to sooth his inchoate fury; but his subsequent utterances have been equal parts funny, witty, kinetic and politically committed. His lyrics would probably be described by many as ‘conscious’, although I’m not going to, as I think it should be obvious he wasn’t asleep while he recorded this stuff; I’m just going to say it’s politically and socially aware, although it’s not excessively worthy and he doesn’t preach. He’s not the sort of emcee that rattles out his rhymes in a confusing clatter of rapid-fire cross rhythms, but the kind that lays it down righteously, with a deep groove and a sense of inevitability. His guests are a select group, and contribute some compelling bars; of these I was most taken with Nyree’s work on ‘Funny How’, although I have to admit I might be influenced by simple relief at hearing a female voice in the most male dominated area of underground music. The beats are mainly funky slabs of boom-bap, with some crunchy synth bass and some razor-sharp cuts spicing things up in places. As a whole, Insert Coin(s) To Continue occupies some well-charted territory, and (like the two albums reviewed above it, but in stark contrast to The Executioner’s Lover) concentrates its creative energies in making the most effective possible use of received musical materials, rather than engaging in any attempt to storm the ramparts of the future. Obviously there are many advantages to such a strategy, not least of which is that an established language is already widely understood, and nuances of meaning can be addressed to the audience with a reasonable expectation that they’ll notice what you’re up to. There are layers and levels to Bruce Gramma’s work here, doubtless more than I’m aware of, given my willful disconnection from mass culture, but I catch enough of it to understand that this is thoughtful and carefully crafted work, visceral and energetic as it is. This is the work of a clearly hungry and motivated artist, with a good ear for what makes an album exciting, highly skilled but with room to grow; you should definitely insert coins (click the link and buy the CD) so that he can continue. To quote the last line of ‘Backing Out’, ‘if you ain’t down you can gargle my nut-sac’, because this is a superb album.