Ashley Reaks – Compassion Fatigue (1-8) (avant-prog)

self released 2014, DD & CD album, 36m 14s

£7+ DD £? CD

Compassion Fatigue‘Concept’ albums have been a mixed blessing on the history of rock music. The idea that an album might have some connecting theme running through the various songs collected on it has been a controversial one, bitterly opposed at times by those with a strong doctrinal commitment to a particular model of popular music, and of rock as a subset thereof. However, some very interesting music has been articulated over a longer term than the three minute single permits, and I think rock (along with most other varieties of popular music) has long since proved its capacity as a language to accommodate less superficial or ephemeral meanings than those usually associated with pop. There is still a world of difference between a broad thematic consistence and, for example, a single narrative around which an album might be constructed, in the manner of an opera or a musical; and there is a significant difference again between a narrative conceit and a formal one. One has to question the usefulness of ‘concept album’ as a term, when it so readily encompasses, on the one hand, the story of a three-armed elvish prince battling against a rainbow-shitting dragon to retrieve an ancient talking sword called Sebastian, and on the other hand an album whose first song is one minute long and in the key of A, whose second song is two minutes long in the key of B, and so on. The second scenario, by a strange coincidence, happens to be the one around which Compassion Fatigue (1-8) is constructed. It’s interesting to note how little this observation tells one about the record. Such a stipulation is basically a serialist one, and inasmuch as the album conforms to it, it could be described as a serialist composition; but the logic of the record’s concept stops precisely at song length and key, after which the music is informed by a rather more accessible set of concerns. It might be considered somewhat forbidding by those with an aversion to sour and cynical representations of humanity, to dark lyrical themes or to a celebratory take on social deviance; but Ashley Reaks works his twisted magic with a palette of engaging melody, driving rock grooves and clearly admirable musicianship.

Serialist it may not be, but there’s a whiff of Minimalism about the way these songs are arranged; to be honest, the arrangements are an integral part of the compositions, and I’m not sure it’s even valid to talk about them in that way, as though the arrangement could be stripped away to leave a set of chords, a melody and some lyrics. Each piece is built up from a complex lamination of parts, often overlapping rhythmically, or interacting in some complex manner; repeated vocal, percussion, and other instrumental phrases are combined in contrapuntal fugues, in which parts come and go episodically. There is sometimes a recurring refrain, as in ‘Street Cleaning’, which serves as a chorus, but none of the songs is really structured strophically; instead a series of textural changes is used to construct a linear narrative, whose cyclicities are in the details of its material rather than its macro-structure. While this approach to orchestration may echo Minimalism, the sound is not minimal, and there are many moments when a seemingly huge number of syncopated parts are marshalled into a single rich texture; and of course Minimalism is not the only precedent for such an approach, having itself been influenced by such musical practices as Gamelan, or the polyrhythmic percussion ensembles of Sub-Saharan Africa. There are many elements of what I will ignorantly refer to as ‘World Music’, including a prevalent use of hand drums, some eastern sounding modalities (particularly in Maria Jardardottir’s vocals), what sound like thumb pianos, and so forth; but they take their place alongside a sensitively textural electric guitar, drum kit, a fat (I mean phat), driving electric bass, keyboards, accordion, saxophone, and doubtless other things I haven’t picked out. These various elements are assembled into structures that resemble long modal, groove-based jams, but which exhibit too much organised complexity to be very likely to have arisen spontaneously from improvisation. There is a distinct post-punk vibe to proceedings, although this derives mostly from Reaks’ sardonic vocal delivery; stylistically the arrangements are pretty unique, but they have a trance-like quality that reminds me of some of the progressive dub outfits associated with On-U Sounds in the 80s and early 90s.

The affective character of the album is quite complex; it’s certainly not one thing or another, which is always a positive for me. The affective experience of life has never been unambiguous for me (or, I suspect, for anyone), and I am more readily engaged by art that reflects the complexity of the world than that which attempts to make sense of it (a creatively limiting and intellectually questionable aim). In terms of its modalities, its notes, rhythms, grooves and textures, this is a pretty positive, likeable and generous set of sounds; trance-like moods, rooted deep in the earth by their dubby basslines, with many moments of simple beauty, like the Dave Kemp’s sax solo in ‘Cot Death Grandmother’, or Jardardottir’s vocal improvisations in ‘Disconnected’. Its lyrical themes are another kettle of fish, however, being humorous and disturbing in equal measure. Most of these songs are character portraits, outlining subjectivities with the vicious precision of the satirist: some are descriptive, such as ‘Joyless Joy’, my personal favourite, which presents us (in unpleasant detail) with the frankly terrifying figure of an emotionally repressed fitness obsessive who has ‘forgotten how to fuck’; others are spoken in the character’s own voice, such as the embittered carer depicted so precisely in the one minute long ‘Compassion Fatigue’. Some characters are based on real figures: ‘Wrong ‘un’ is about Peter Righton, the child protection ‘expert’ and convicted paedophile, while ‘Cold Body Pussycat’ is based on the American sexual cannibal Ed Gein. What they all seem to share is Reaks’ dislike; most of them are very nasty, but his sarcasm cracks like a whip across their portraits – ‘she’s psychologically free/ had a one night stand with a non-white man back in seventy-three’ he says of the aforementioned Joy. I won’t give any more examples, because they should all be heard in context.

The album as a whole is a very coherent statement, informed by a clear aesthetic and a rigorous creative vision. It’s a lot of fun, and once you start to key into its humour (lyrics usually take quite a few listens to register with me), very funny, but it also presents a romantic Bohemian darkness that is powerfully charismatic. The humour simply wouldn’t mean as much in a less musically rewarding setting, and nor would it signify in as complex a way if the album were simply played for laughs. This is a serious creative work, the consequence of disciplined application and unsentimental decision-making; and as a work of art it is no less affecting, profound or meaningful for the conspicuous presence of humour as one of its main ingredients. In fact, for me, that’s one of its central virtues; Ashley Reaks’ sardonic world-view, as articulated in the lyrical texts, animates and informs the entirety of the work. That those texts are set in a conspicuously communitarian setting, a set of grooves that sound like invitations to a dervish trance, to a tribal coming together, makes it clear that we are intended to be in on the joke. Compassion Fatigue (1-8)  is an unusually compelling and musically highly accomplished piece of work; I can’t recommend it enough.


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