February 2020 Roundup: Part 1
Ben has collated the roundup of releases from February we haven't been able to do full reviews for, featuring the best music fresh off the press ranging from jazz, spiritual, house, minimalist, ambient, electronica and afrobeat releases. The following artists feature in this article:
Ancient Infinity Orchestra / Seven Wonders' Various Artists / Sunda Arc / Ben Williams / Steve Spacek / Beatrice Dillon / Emma-Jean Thackray / Moses Boyd / Kennebec.
Ancient Infinity Orchestra - Solar Seasons (Polyscope, 31 January)
The third LP release from Leeds 9-piece Ancient Infinity Orchestra comes after last year's exhilarating Cosmosaic as they are joined this time by Azizi Cole on drums and Khemi Shabazz on oboe. Solar Seasons is an album of free jazz that offers both abstract phrases and melodic unity through the vast array of instruments they have on offer to take you on a deep voyage (they have flute, saxohpones, cello, violin, helicon, cornet, bass clarinet, and keytar featured on the tracks in the album). Whilst the soundscapes require patience as they build tension through collective screaching, and drop out from this to enraptured motifs, the album nods to their various influences. 'Callisto' has a Sun Ra keyboard which leads into a Barrett-era Pink Floyd loop, whilst 'Riverrun' pays homage to Nana Vasconcelos with hand claps, dripping mouth clicks, shshing and percussion perfectly evoke the rain and water falling, water running and water cascading over rocks and stones. This merges seamlessly into the soothing lull of 'Stillness' as the whole album captures the many tones and textures from each instrument to create an evolving piece of work of both breathtaking freneticism and idyllic states of serenity.
Various Artists - Seven Wonders (Plug Seven Records, 7 February)
Seven Wonders is the new compilation of Australia's jazz and soul music scene burgeoning through, compiled by Plug Seven Records and Wondercore Island. An extended version of Brownswood's Sunny Side Up that was also released to look at Melbourne's jazz scene, this album features more musicians as the genres jump from funk, house, hip-hop, Ethio-jazz and straight up jazz. Recorded largely over two weeks, the majority of the tracks on Seven Wonders were captured in one take, bottling the raw energy and virtuosity of Melbourne’s most accomplished, established and emerging players. Lead single ‘Custard Shoulder’, comes courtesy of rising Melbourne eight-piece WVR BVBY as a swirling, downbeat, jazz-funk reverie; Sampa the Great collaborator Dave Rodriguez, aka GODTET, features with 'Womans Choir' that has a tribal feel initially before an echoing Scandinavian-style of ambient jazz flows through his samples. Superfeather's 'Dempsey Roll' is riff heavy with the guitars whilst Greg Sheehan, Vinod Prassana, and Perrin Moss' ‘Improvisation #2’ is a percussive excerpt from a four-hour, post-meditation, improvisation session that moves at hectic speed between different rhythms. The James Macauley Quartet slinks through a soothing piece of solely trombone work in 'For Yu Sakamoto' and Raw Humps lays on heavy funk and psychedelia in 'Odyssey'. 30/70 introduce a stonking sci-fi synth sound alongside Allysha Joy's RnB style vocals in 'Drifting' and 'Work' featuring Ijale with Mohi and thedieyoungs is an excellent beat of hip-hop jazz. Seven Wonders is a snapshot of a moment in time in which Australia’s players are moving from the confines of house parties and local clubs to claim their spot on the world stage.
Buy Seven Wonders here, and keep up to date with Various Artists here.
Sunda Arc - Tides (Gondwana Records, 7 February)
Sunda Arc are brothers Nick Smart and Jordan Smart, known also as key members of folk and jazz influenced minimalists Mammal Hands. Tides takes inspiration from the likes of Jon Hopkins, Rival Consoles, Moderat and Nils Frahm as well as their own music world as they strive to mingle electronic and acoustic sounds until they become almost indistinguishable from each other. It's a process where they draw the acoustic properties and quirks out of electronic sounds and find the electronic potential in acoustic sounds. Many of the tracks will sound stupendous in club settings despite their ambient and minimalist nature as they evoke the feeling of forces pulling you into directions out of your control, which aligns well with their name as it is a volcanic arc in the Indian Ocean, as well as the album title in how unseen forces can push and pull us like tides in our oceans. 'Cluster' is wonderfully jarring as the sounds jilt along to the surreal strings, whilst first single 'Hymn' has a slightly higher pitch sound that sequences well with other electronic splatterings that move chaotically but intentionally. 'Everything at Once' has a greater intensity to it which is supplemented well by single 'Daemon' that is harsher in sound as the bass clarinet blends with synths at the end as the song draws on the sound of UK dubstep.
Ben Williams - I Am A Man (Rainbow Blonde Records, 7 February)
Washington D.C. born and New York based bassist Ben Williams has released his third solo album I Am A Man featuring special guests Wes Felton, Kendra Foster, Muhsinah, and Niles as he contributes with lead vocals for the first time on this mature piece of . Having had previous releases on Concord Records and won a Grammy as a part of Pat Metheny's Unity Band in 2013, Williams sought inspiration from political motifs such as the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in the 60s and Ana DuVernay's documentary 13th exploring the connection between the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, and the mass incarceration of minorities in the United States. Lead single 'If You Hear Me' is an RnB soother reminscent of Marvin Gaye and Motown vibes, whilst 'March On' has some fluid broken beat drums and strong piano stabs with Wes Felton's spoken word that along with 'The Death of Emmett Till' emphasise the strong political significance of the message Williams wishes to tell. The strings in the latter create a mournful glow to remember Till by, whilst 'Promised Land' introduces a surging electronic sound that wobbles through the poignant vocals that cry out. The song references Martin Luther King's famous 'Mountaintop' speech he delivered to the Memphis strikers as the lyrics at the end “We gon’ make it y’all / All you have to do / Is stay cool” are echoed once again with the return of electronic subtleties in second single and album finisher 'We Shall Overcome'; Williams' album acts as a defiant message to people of colour to stay strong, together.
Steve Spacek - Houses (Black Focus Records, 7 February)
Steve Spacek has released new LP Houses produced completely on iPhone and iPad apps, a work of soft house and lo-fi beats that bop and bounce with ease and always have a bassline moving it along. Whilst no tracks really venture outside of this atmosphere until 'Love 4 Nano' nine tracks in, the work feels very jazzy, minimal and catchy as with track 'Waiting 4 You' that has a crooning bassline and stabbed cymbals that ring out to match the simple but effective vocals. 'Tell Me' offers some more slightly acidy squelches on top of the synths, and 'Songlife' has a deep vaporwave trip vibe that offers the clearest evidence of an iPhone/iPad sample with the use of a trumpet quite cheaply. 'African Dream' is the best lo-fi tune and the bonus tracks are when the darker tones and textures are explored to a greater effect. Spacek provides a reverb-echoing voice throughout as the LP evokes early 90s house vibes but just at more of a walking tempo rather than pumping out the tunes at a higher bpm.
Beatrice Dillon - Workaround (PAN, 7 February)
The debut album from Beatrice Dillon comes from recordings made over 2017-2019 in various studios around the world to create Workaround, a hypnotic series of polymetric permutations at a fixed 150bpm tempo that combines her love of UK club music’s syncopated suss and Afro-Caribbean influences. The inventive sampling and luminous mixing techniques showcases Dillon’s rhythms unfolding between unresolved 5/4 tresillo patterns, complex tabla strokes and spark-jumping tics in a fluid, tactile dance of dynamic contrasts between strong/light, sudden/restrained, and bound/free made in reference to the notational instructions of choreographer Rudolf Laban. Working in and around the beat and philosophy, the album’s freehand physics contract and expand between the lissom rolls of Bhamra’s tabla in the first, to a harmonious balance of hard drum angles and swooping FM synth cadence featuring additional synth and vocal from Laurel Halo in ‘Workaround Two’, while the extruded strings of Lucy Railton create a sublime tension at the album’s palate cleansing denouement, triggering a scintillating run of technoid pieces that riff on the kind of swung physics found in Artwork’s seminal ‘Basic G’, or Rian Treanor’s disruptive flux with a singularly tight yet loose motion and infectious joy. The substance of her music is rematerialised in supple, concise emotional curves and soberly freed to enact its ideas in balletic plies, rugged parries and sweeping, capoeira-like floor action. Applying deeply canny insight drawn from her years of practice as sound designer, musician and hugely knowledgable/intuitive DJ, ‘Workaround’ can be heard as Dillon’s ingenious solution or key to unlocking to perceptions of stiffness, darkness or grid-locked rigidity in electronic music.
Emma-Jean Thackray - Rain Dance / Wisdom (Movementt, 12 February)
Composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and bandleader Emma-Jean Thackray returns with single 'Rain Dance / Wisdom' from her upcoming EP Rain Dance on her new label Movementt, her first extended release since 2018's successful Ley Lines. To be released on 6 March, the EP aims to capture the energy of her live performances as she becomes an increasingly staple member of the UK jazz scene. The tune starts off with some chilling keys before some phat, funky drums and bass envelop around the wailing reverbing trumpet. Thackray then leads the band into a new tempo as the heat increases before the rhythm section provides stabs for the trumpet and drums to solo spectacularly at the end. The added fire to this tune is a nice progression from Ley Lines.
Moses Boyd - Dark Matter (Exodus Records, 14 February)
This is drummer and producer Moses Boyd's second LP release as Dark Matter creates a dancefloor-heavy flow using his jazz influences to blend them with midi rhythms that see a musical progression to full use of electronic sequencing. This combination allows for a free jazz spirit to resonate, and his Tony Allen influences can be heard in the afrobeat-jazz of 'BTB' and his strong shuffle power in 'Stranger Than Fiction' where his drumming prowess exudes. 'Dancing in the Dark' featuring Obongjayar and 'Only You' are darker cuts that demonstrate his newfound love for production titbits to add flavour to his drums; '2 Far Gone' is the standout track that best collates his various influences into a purposeful piece of music, as Joe Armon-Jones' piano offers a wonderful melody to a UKG-RnB vibe that has a sumptuous vocal floating above the rhythm. Whilst Boyd states in this interview that the album was "just trying to get as much emotion out of sound as I could", the flow sometimes seems to be halted by the desire to introduce different production elements as some of the songs don't go anywhere really. Nonetheless, this record demonstrates his very capable nature as a producer and he will become more in-demand to artists, having already worked extensively with the likes of Binker Golding, Zara McFarlane and Tomorrow's Warriors in the past.
Kennebec - Departure (Night Time Stories, 14 February)
Eric Phillips, aka Kennebec, moved out of NYC a few years ago to Portland and Departure began at this time in spring 2017, meaning the album has taken two long years of patient, daily labour. He scored parts for classical guitar, ngoni, kalimba, bass, piano and Rhodes all on this record as the organic beats and soaring string lines envelope the listener with a dreamful kind of optimism. Single ‘Seasons Change’ is a silky myriad of sounds, textures and techniques that melt against a backdrop of subtle electronics, while ‘Kalahari’ glistens with curiosity and adventure as magnetic strings meet with a mosaic of horns. Elsewhere, the melancholic and wistful moods of ‘Wellspring’ provide a moment of reflection before the warm, fuzzy, feel good grooves of ‘Quest’, embellished by flutes and sax, venture into more overt atmospherics and fluid modulations. Departure catalogues Kennebec's move out west and builds on his work of composing the music for numerous feature films, shorts, national parks films, documentaries (including 2017’s National Geographic ‘From the Ashes’), advertisements and video games in this time.