Slowfoot Records SLOCD02, 2014, DD & CD album, 48m 19s
DD £7+ CD £10+
There’s an openness, and a sense of ensemble solidarity, to Prescott, that puts me in mind of jazz as much as it does of the art-rock influences they own up to in their press release; much of the music is clearly arranged in detail, but it feels improvisational, and its musical meanings seem to stem from this group of musicians, making this sound, on this occasion, with that devotion to the present moment so characteristic of the most committed jazz. In stylistic terms there is little to tie this music unequivocally to jazz, rock or anything else. Frank Byng’s drumming is expressive and propulsive, making use of the full kit without overpowering the group sound, and it is probably the most outwardly conventional aspect of their music; Rhodri Marsden’s keyboards and Kev Hopper’s bass outline a harmonic landscape that is arguably tonal, in that it has clearly defined points of rest, but which rarely proffers any sense of familiarity. Deliberately awkward in the shapes they assume, Prescott make outsider music, in their refusal of certain notions of compositional competence, but they embrace other aspects of musical craft with gleeful virtuosity. Their compositions are arranged with subtle formal structures and nuanced instrumental textures, while their performances are the work of players that know their instruments, and enjoy playing them. They don’t show off, they don’t play extended melodic solos, and they don’t play much that would be difficult to execute in isolation, although there are demanding moments; but the sheer complexity and strangeness of these tunes suggest that performing them would be a challenging feat of both memory and technique. This music is not a collection of circus tricks, however, but a set of sincere gambits, directed at opening an aesthetic dialogue with the listener. What are your terms of reference, they seem to ask, making it clear with the next breath that theirs are almost certainly not the same.
Stylistically, One Did is the statement of a novel language. While novelty is by no means a prerequisite to creative value, and in itself is no guarantee of interest, it’s a good start, and betokens here a deeply held desire to engage creatively with all aspects of artistic practice, at a fundamental level. Texturally, almost the whole album is built on the ensemble sound of bass, drums and electric pianos of various sorts; Byng’s crisp, light clatter, Hopper’s wiry heft, and Marsden’s broad but bounded timbral palette, are all very distinctive, and combine with the particularities of their phrasing and expression to make for three very distinct, particular voices. Together they produce an entirely coherent and recognisable collective sound, sometimes enhanced by other elements, as in ‘Philby Files‘ — a song whose woodwinds and guitar reference the stylistic tropes of soundtrack music without compromising on Prescott’s single-minded commitment to bespoke harmonic materials. The musical meanings are built as much around the proclivities of each musician as a player, as they are around any sense of composition in the abstract.
Hopper’s voice in particular is continually exploratory, and employs a combination of techniques that is pretty much specific to him: a very trebly sound which permits prominent use of harmonics and string noise; a corresponding girth to the lower register, that facilitates an enveloping warmth at times; an approach to plectrum technique that incorporates rapid tremolos, more akin to those found among mandolin players than anything common in rock; and a fluid left hand, that sometimes smears, bends and double stops the notes evocatively. Byng and Marsden employ expressive palettes that are no less complex or accomplished, but only Hopper stands so far apart from the established technical conventions of his instrument, and only he takes the opportunities afforded to perform anything that approximates a solo; ‘T-Sup’, in particular, is the occasion for a developmental exploration of the timbral possibilities of his extended techniques, against a grid-like repetition of a single dissonant dyad from Marsden.
This repetition is also characteristic, providing in many places the structuring principle of the compositions: an aspect of the arrangement will be doggedly straightforward and repetitious (Prescott refer to this as ‘micro-riffing’), while other elements are articulated episodically against it. In ‘Metro Monique’ for example, another electric piano dyad provides continuity, while the the bass first plays lyrical, jazzy lines, later repeating a very short, funky, double-stopped phrase; various further permutations arise between all three instruments while the dyad continues precisely on the beat to the end. Harmonically and melodically the music follows a logic that is readily graspable for the listener, but which refuses to settle on any sense of tonal finality; there are chord sequences, and modal colours, but they are all contingent on the caprice of a meandering affective narrative that is as humorous as it is unsettling.
This is an album of instrumental exposition, one which can be enjoyed for the skill and invention of the players in much the same way as a record by Joe Satriani or Branford Marsalis, although it will rarely be the same listeners enjoying the frolicsome virtuosity of the musicians, given the startlingly different assumptions that inform these musical materials. One Did concludes with a short acoustic piano piece that restates the album in miniature, reprising thematic material from throughout the record, most clearly the memorable melodies from ‘Didism’ and ‘Piece of Cake’. ‘One Done’, as this bagatelle is titled, seems to emphasise in its brevity the importance of Prescott’s specific instrumental performances to One Did’s musical meanings; if the music were reduced purely to composition, to the abstract planning and model-making of the detached musical author, this seems to imply, these one-hundred and eight seconds are all that would be left. They are a very engaging and enjoyable one-hundred and eight seconds, but they add up to an ephemeral and relatively insubstantial aesthetic experience, held up against the deep, rich complexity of the album as a whole. The piece puts the seal on this suite of materials in a very useful way, like the summary in an essay or report, directing the listener’s attention back to the most memorable thematic elements, and thus evoking the rich instrumental interplay in the moments in which they occur. But it’s in that interplay, in those streams of dialogue, that the album’s rewards are to be harvested. This is a record about communication, although it seems a little opaque on first encounter; artistic utterances that do not require any work on the part of their audience are stuck with reiterating meanings the listener already possesses, however, juggling and shuffling them to achieve some specificity of representation by generic means. Prescott, by contrast, invite the listener to make a leap; the very particular and peculiar character of their harmonic materials creates a constant re-focussing of attention on the present moment, and the sympathetic ear finds itself right in the midst of the conversation between the musicians. This is a very effective, somewhat challenging, but also highly entertaining record, a brilliant essay in the craft of music making, and a statement of rare creative rigour.