Quatermass MASS002, 2014, DD & CD album, 46m 29s
£7+ DD £9+ CD
‘A small collection of big suites’ is the sub-title applied to this ‘mini-album’; I can’t concur with either characterisation. Taken as a single work in several movements (it’s really two long suites with three short pieces as an entr’acte) this would be, at forty-six minutes, a respectable length for a Classical symphony. In other words, it’s quite short for a prog-rock album, but it’s a pretty substantial work; its predecessor, Use And Ornament, is about fifteen minutes longer, and I guess that the language by which this record is being promoted suggests we should expect a substantially longer release in the relatively near future. I would welcome that, but let’s be clear; Neither Use Nor Ornament is not too short. Long records are sometimes long by virtue of taking a long time to say what they say, but Regal Worm, on the evidence of two albums, says a great deal in not much time; the forty-six and a half minutes currently under review are certainly packed with incident and variety. A variety of episodes succeed one another like acts in a play; but within each one, even the short pieces, there are continual unexpected turns and transformations. Long though it may be, this album bears little formal resemblance to a Classical symphony, at least not in terms of thematic repetition and development… I couldn’t say for absolutely certain that its key structure doesn’t resemble that of sonata form, because I can’t be arsed to analyse it in those terms, but the way I hear it, its narrative is played out in its dynamic peaks and troughs, and in the sequence of its affective colours. The story it tells is not really about its own substance, immensely satisfying and exquisitely crafted though that is, but about experience; experiences that presumably inspired Jarrod Gosling to write and arrange this music, the experience of the listener, and standing between them, the inexact but utterly specific, beautifully indeterminate mediation of these recorded sounds.
Although the tale may not emerge that forcefully from its intermittent lyrical text, the intended narrative scheme is reasonably apparent from the title of ‘Odilon Escapes From The Charcoal Oblivion But Endeavours To Return And Rescue The Cactus Men’ – I wonder if the ‘cactus men’ in question are inspired by China Miéville’s ‘cactacae’? The sounds of the piece do not evoke such a grimly dystopian world as that writer favours however, so much as a disorientating wonderland of psychedelic non-sequiturs and unpredictably contingent meanings… Indeed, the whole album affectively resembles the sort of drug experience where significance becomes uncoupled from its physical containers – or, more precisely, where the arbitrary and ephemeral character of such connections becomes apparent. The material form of the music is not that of a psychedelic freakout though, but a careful and intricate construction, more akin to the careful representations of the surrealists than to the visceral distortions of expressionism. Many of the piece’s riffs are heavy and driving (although their weight is not derived from the sort of metal crunch that is an essential part of so many prog musicians’ palettes today), but they are also possessed of an ethereal, astringent tonality, and off-kilter rhythms that situate the music unequivocally in the avant-garde camp. Texturally, every beat is complex, and there is rarely a harmonic or melodic idea that is conveyed by a single voice; very often the riffs are stated in a great vertical stack of homorhythmic elements from bass to fizzing synth, with guitar, saxophone, organ, mellotron and whatever else fits crammed in between. The effect is rich and satisfying, incorporating a range of timbres, from thin to thick and dark to bright; the task of orchestrating each chord is treated with as much seriousness as voicing it. All of these observations could equally have been made in respect of the equally long ‘The King Of Sleep’ at the other end of the album; there is no lack of variety, and each suite has enormous affective and dynamic gradients, but there is also a great deal of consistency to the sound.
The sense of narrative, or of journey, is very powerful; the music is organised episodically, within the two long suites, and across the album as a whole. Although ‘The King Of Sleep’ reprises its opening material to conclude the album, it could hardly be described as strophic, and most movements of the music contain material that is connected to the larger work aesthetically and timbrally, but not thematically. Ideas are introduced, and given all the space required to articulate them fully, but they are rarely revisited. This continual flow of ideas operates at both macro and micro levels, with an almost febrile procession of invention in detail filling out the broader schema of the overall narrative. Stylistically, Gosling forges his own practice, but with considerable, and unashamed homage to a variety of well established sounds. It’s certainly ‘prog’, and a love for the golden era of that music is evident, but it’s also informed by an evident regard for pop, and refers repeatedly back to the 60s, as in the subtly warped sunshine of the material that opens and closes ‘The King Of Sleep’; but the obvious and appropriate label with which to situate (but certainly not to define) Neither Use Nor Ornament, is psychedelia. Regal Worm doesn’t cleave to any sort of generic formula, but it is informed by a very coherently expressed sense of style, whose characteristics refer to a history of musical practice without being beholden to any vision but that of its author.
The sheer height of its dynamic and textural vectors lends Neither Use Nor Ornament an epic quality. The quiet that succeeds Odilon’s escape in the title track is gently moving, without sentimentality; the force of what follows derives in large part from its contrast to this quiet movement, and to the sweet beauty of its flute and vocal melodies. The music’s affective impact is expressed in large gestures then, but it is also full of detailed subtleties, and for all its dynamic range it is non-obvious at either extreme; neither head-banging martial bombast nor straightforward melodic lyricism are in its compass, although there are moments that seem to appeal to some recognisably joyful spirit. To call it whimsical would be to do Gosling’s rigorous compositional work and meticulous attention to detail a grave disservice, but there is a quality to this music that is easily mis-identified as whimsy; it has a changeable character, a playful sense of mischief, highlighting the contingency of perception with the oblique wisdom of a mythological trickster figure like the Norse god Loki or Shakespeare’s ‘shrewd and knavish sprite’ Puck. It turns affective corners as quickly as… well, as everyday life, which swings from the banalities of the washing-up, to the tragedy of a news story, to the idiocy of an emailed joke in minutes; continuities of feeling are useful and ubiquitous in art, but they are no truer to life than are disjunctures, and the rapidly unfolding episodes of Regal Worm’s music have as good a claim on our attention as any approach. For the most part this album takes the listener to places that partake of both joy and melancholy, disorientation and precision, the concrete and the ethereal, both successively and simultaneously. Ambiguity is the order of the day, in a sense, but at the same time moods and atmospheres are stated with clarity; Jarrod Gosling knows just what he wants to say, and it is neither one thing nor the other, because like most experiences, it is both (and other stuff besides!) Like its predecessor Use And Ornament, this album gives ample evidence of a wide ranging and well-informed musical mind, capable of juggling all the balls at once, and unwilling to compromise on any aspect of composition or performance. I’m on tenterhooks to see what follows this.