CD on PSI Recordings
Some reviews of Essex Foam Party:
English improvised music has always had a sly sense of humour. Not the wacky custard-pie-in-Monk-face humour of the Dutch, or the heavy (heavy-handed, more often than not) cabaret belly laugh of the Germans, but something stranger, more subversive. Think Derek Bailey’s dry spoken commentaries on his own playing, the anarchic stylistic melting pot of Alterations, the disturbing weirdness of the Bohman Brothers and Hugh Metcalfe. Grutronic, a four-piece electro improv ensemble (Stephen and Nick Grew, Richard Scott and David Ross), augmented for the occasion by guests Orphy Robinson (vibes) and Paul Obermayer (sampler), have taken the last four decades of improvised music on board, swabbed the decks with it and served it up seven frothy pints of the stuff on what could be my favourite album of 2009. Quite simply, it rocks – not as in boom boom boom (though regular pulse is by no mean taboo here, and a few decidedly funky beatboxes box their way through the crowd from time to time), but in the same way that Rafael Toral’s recent music does, with that wicked sense of asymmetrical swing that will have your feet tapping without knowing why. Put that down perhaps to the musicians’ openness to other areas of new music – Nick Grew works with Ballistic Cabaret and Newvacuum, and David Ross has been the drummer in Kenny Process Team since the early 90s – and a willingness to experiment and, to use Derek Bailey’s favourite word, play. The sounds are simply irresistible, not because they’re “funny” or “silly” (though there are plenty of delightful squelches and swoops) but because they’re put together with such affection and instinctive precision. I read in the liner notes that Ross “found a path to free improvisation, inspired by Ornette Coleman records, watching maestro Roger Turner and talking to Keith Rowe about Steely Dan” (ha! remind me to talk to Keith about Steely Dan myself next time we meet) – with such an impeccable pedigree, how could you possibly go wrong? Essex Foam Party is pure delight – get yourself a copy as soon as you can.–DW
Stephen Grew, Richard Scott, Nick Grew and David Ross constitute the vital organs of Grutronic, an improvising body formed by musicians endowed with ascertained technical preparation on acoustic instruments. Alternatively, for this project they make the most of the possibilities of electronics, sampling, analogue synthesis and processing to create music that is extraordinarily multicolored, often wacky – and occasionally formidable. In three (of seven) tracks of Essex Foam Party they’re aided by Paul Obermayer (of Furt fame) and vibraphonist Orphy Robinson. “Permanence” is a term that should be entirely excluded from the quartet’s vocabulary; the compositions, repeatedly reaching levels of cartoon-ish fun – a whole lot of belching squeals, incontrollable movements and overjoyed explosions keep us good company – are not classifiable straight away but still manage to attain an almost immediate positive reception by the equipped listener. This is mainly due to a discernible recusancy of the po-faced aspects of improvisation, enriched by a seemingly illimitable fantasy which pushes the group beyond the boundaries of unfruitful knob-turning. The total fragmentariness of everything that’s heard does the rest, never allowing the attention to dwindle, always producing the type of intense stimulation that usually gratifies a demanding kind of person. Yet, incredibly, it is also soothing – in a special way – for its conscious musicality. This “edibility of the tortuous” is possibly the outstanding trait of a praiseworthy ensemble whose artistic spirit stands somewhere between a schizophrenic version of Voice Crack and an alien Spike Jones.
Grutronic is a free improvising collective, featuring musicians spanning progressive jazz, free jazz and experimental persuasions. On Essex Foam Party, the core electronics-based quartet aligns with special guests, vibraphonist Orphy Robinson and sampler Paul Obermayer. With liquefying, trickling and ping ponging effects, the musicians implement analog and digital equipment to play with tricks with the psyche, offering some curiously intriguing propositions along the way.
At times the band draws similarities to the minimalistic and edgy facets witnessed within British free jazz propensities such as the late drummer John Stevens’ fabled Spontaneous Music Ensemble, but with electronics substituting for the acoustic instruments. The artists delve deeper into other sonicscapes by emulating a disoriented outlook via daunting fabrics of multilayered sounds, occasionally embedded with zigzagging crosscurrents and asymmetrical patterns. It’s a bizarre study of polytonal contrasts and subliminal background treatments.
On “Concussion Vibes,” Robinson adds a light touch to the dark and grumbling electronics maneuvering to summon notions of an informal question and answer session. Otherwise, the musicians generate streaming dissections of sound amid semblances of a fractured prism, awash with oscillating countercurrents and themes that break down then reform. The humorously titled closer, “Foam Sweet Foam,” serves as a brief yet fitting epilogue to the overall program, which is engineered upon distortion, scratchy highs and lows, and a happenstance-like vibe. The unit sheds a nouveau perspective on the extended capabilities of electronics implementations. There’s a lot to digest, but it’s all in good fun as they triumphantly align the technical aspects with a significant entertainment factor.
Essex Foam Party (Psi)
Furt – Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer, both credited simply with ‘electronics’ – have become a key presence among the Psi recordings roster. Sense is their fourth recording on the label since 2004; Obermayer guests on the Grutronic release also reviewed here, and Barrett is featured as a composer on the recent Adrift. Furt were expanded to an octet, fORCH, for the Spin Networks album in 2005, and were integrated into an ensemble closely related to Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble for Psi boss Parker’s latest recording, Set. Barrett was enlisted in the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble proper in 2003.
Furts’ electronics are simultaneously playful in an almost childlike sense and mind-fuckingly cerebral. These characteristics are dualities of both of the long pieces that make up Sense, but each piece tugs in an opposite direction. The twelve-part, 46-minute-long Uranus gets things under way gently with some vaguely aquatic atmospherics that are interrupted by a gentle clatter and a rude sequence of electronic pops, and suddenly we are traversing a disconcerting soundscape, a sonic mindfield of minor sound/glitch events and fractured voice samples. Each of Uranus twelve parts are subtitled Limen, so we are on notice from the start that we will ever be at the threshold, our psychological reflexes engaged to the max if we don’t choose simply to disengage. (For some listeners the alternative, geological sense of Limen as a muddy lagoon will perhaps seem more apposite.) Recognisable samples emerge occasionally to give the listener buoys to cling to, if necessary: Limen II features a brief violin melody, repeatedly surfacing from a glitch-scrape of, perhaps, its sampled self. But other pleasurable elements are more purely musical: The metallic scrapes of Limen III, for example, take on a tinnitus-testing tintinabulist quality. How serious are Furt? It’s not obvious. Limen IV features fragmentary samples of an electronically treated voice tangled by tabla and toy drum percussion sounds, eventually giving way to a disturbing sonic collision of nursery and abattoir. Limen V reminded me somewhat of those old BBC sound effects recordings. And so it goes on. At times I’ve found Sense utterly engrossing and immensely enjoyable, but on other occasions it’s just threatened me with a headache. You must listen for yourselves.
The other piece here, curtains, is 25 unbroken minutes of live performance dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen. It begins as a circling, oscillating drone but, after a couple of minutes, strings and other more fragmented samples are introduced to unsettle things and the piece takes on a creakily ethereal aspect. Thereafter everything sounds plinkily random, albeit in a pleasant, fluid way that’s nicely at odds with the relatively frenetic Uranus. curtains is characterized by restraint as much as anything: it is in no way chaotic. It’s organizing principles, however, remain opaque.
Adrift features three Barrett compositions: these are Codex IX in memory of Mauricio Kagel, performed by the Elision ensemble; Adrift in memory of Paul Rutherford, performed by Barrett himself and pianist Sara Nicolls; and Codex VII performed in collaboration with Dutch ensemble Camp d’Action. Many listeners will find Adrift more accessible than the rude charms of Sense, but I mention the album here mostly to direct the attention of the curious since, despite some terrific improvising from the Elision soloists and particularly Nicoll’s fine judgment, the album falls squarely in New Music’s ‘New Complexity’ arena, and therefore comfortably beyond the jazzmann’s remit.
Of these three recordings, Grutronic’s Essex Foam Party probably fits that (notional) remit most closely. It even features vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, whose name should be reassuringly familiar to jazz listeners. Here he is a guest, alongside Furt’s Paul Obermayer (sampler), on three of the album’s seven tracks. The core participants are all free improvisers “with a past/present as acoustic ensemble players…re-incarnated as electronic musicians, extending technique through the development of highly personalised systems of sound production and control”, namely: Stephen Grew (keyboard, processing), Richard Scott (electronics, analogue synthesizer, sampler, processing), Nick Grew (transduction, processing), and David Ross (his own wryly-named Drosscillator).
Grutronic’s music is superficially very similar to Furt’s, and particularly to the Limen of Uranus. It’s similarly hyperactive and kinetic, which can be similarly overwhelming, and the manipulations of some of the electronic sound-sources produce the same sort of woozily destabilizing effect. Sometimes Robinson’s sonorous vibes brings provide a skein of clarity, while at others they simply tip the whole into sonic overload. Without their guests in tow, as on the title track, Grutronic hove closer to the wilder shores of IDM and evoke a more Heath-Robinson take on the Autechre sound. Grutronics’ music, while no doubt heavily theorised, has the qualities of lightness and spontaneity that are somehow lacking in Furt’s music, for all the latter’s apparent impulsiveness. Somehow Grutronic contrive to sound more artless, which makes them easier to warm to. Listeners with ears attuned to the musical responsiveness integral to Jazz will find this Foam Party curiously good fun. It helps, too, that the individual tracks each have distinct characteristics beyond those of their constituent parts. BallPool Blues, for exmple, has a woozy, skew-whiff quality that envelops as much as it unsettles; there are even, briefly, some regular beats. At other times, however, as on the brief Nose-Up, Grutronic are just as happy to revel in discord.
Before signing off it’s perhaps worth looking closer at Grutronic’s individual histories. Ross has been drummer for Kenny Process Team and currently plays in a critically lauded duo with Clive Bell. Scott specialises in motion-controlled electronics, specifically here the Buchla Lightning MIDI controller. Nick Grew specializes in music for theatre, deploying for Grutronic “toys and hand held instruments” alongside his processing. Stephen Grew’s principle instrument used to be piano, but a switch to electronic keyboards for live performances led to its use as a trigger for electronics; he has played with Keith Tippett and Howard Riley. If all that doesn’t make you curious, as it should, they’re probably not for you.
GRUTRONIC / Essex Foam Party (Psi)
Un disque actif d’improvisation électroacoustique, dans une veine semblable à celle de Furt (dont un membre, Paul Obermayer, est ici à titre d’invité sur trois pièces). Un quatuor à la base (plus Obermayer et Orphy Robinson), Grutronic est formé d’instrumentistes passés aux électroniques: claviers, modules Buchla, dispositifs d’oscillation et de transduction – le tout donne une musique hautement électrifiée, ondulante, hyperactive et insaisissable. Pas aussi étourdissante que Furt (un cas à part, croyez-moi), mais diablement intéressante.
A busy record of electroacoustic improvisation, in a vein similar to Furt (incidentally, Furt’s Paul Obermayer guests on three tracks). Basically a quartet (plus Obermayer and Orphy Robinson), Grutronic consists of instrumentalists gone rogue with electronics: keyboards, Buchla modules, oscillation and transduction devices, etc. Their music is highly electrified, sinuous, hyperactive, fleeting. Not as dizzying as Furt’s (a special case, believe me), but darn interesting nonetheless.
Essex Foam Party
Grutronic is a quartet that brings together four experienced acoustic free improvisers who have re-invented themselves as electronic musicians. They display a sense of humour and fun as they explore the possibilities afforded to them by the use of electronics. Many of the electronic sounds the group produce are reminiscent of those that peppered the soundtracks of low budget sci-fi films several decades ago, or the kind that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop cooked up for early episodes of Dr Who. There are plenty of electronic twitterings and farting sounds.
However, the four musicians get way beyond the novelty value of the electronics and reveal their history as improvisers. They allow each other space so that the resulting music never becomes cluttered or over-busy. They respond to each other’s playing with contrasting or complementary sounds, thus building up a complex but satisfying sound, impressive as most of the music here was performed live in concert or the studio. Orphy Robinson, on vibes, and Paul Obermayer, on sampler, guest on three tracks and are easily assimilated into the overall group ethos and sound of Grutronic; they never sound like guest stars who have been gratuitously grafted on.
This is as entertaining as electronic improvisation gets, and it stands up well to repeated listening.
5.0 out of 5 stars Filagree Electroacoustic masterpiece, 27 Jan 2010
Another mindblowing disc on Evan Parker’s excellent PSI label. Grutronic remind us that hardcore electroacoustic music doesn’t have to be all frowning, horrible noises and hard work. Jazz, electronica, free improvsation, avant garde chamber music, noise and a certain frivolousness, somehow all come together and joyfully coexist, without any sense of division or compromise. Dare I say, I can almost hear the echo of a sly pop sensibilty in places here, although that is really an unusual reference to find in such committedly abstract music. The group (a collective of composers Stephen Grew, Nicholas Grew, Richard Scott and David Ross) remind me a little of Furt in some places (another great PSI ensemble) but I sense there is a quite different aesthetic at work here: something more fun, and more funny too. I think this release bodes well for the future of PSI, it shows they are not only representing the (great) traditions of UK experimental and improvised music but still wide open to new ideas. I sincerely hope that one day they really play this music amidst the drunken screaming wet t-shirts at a foam party in essex…