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Mammal Hands - Animalia Rating: 4 out of 5 A highly accomplished début from a very capable young band who have already established an enviable reputation for the quality and excitement of their live shows.

Mammal Hands

“Animalia”

(Gondwana Records GOND012)

Mammal Hands are a young trio from Norwich consisting of brothers Nick Smart (piano) and Jordan Smart (saxophones) plus drummer and percussionist Jesse Barratt. The Smarts were already working as an electronica duo before encountering Barratt in April 2012 at which point their music gravitated in a more obviously jazz orientated direction. The bassless line up might suggest some kind of chamber jazz but instead the music of Mammal Hands is unexpectedly rhythmic, dynamic and exciting and also reflects the trio’s interests in electronic, contemporary classical and world music. These include Barratt’s knowledge of Indian rhythms learned during his studies with tabla master Sirishkumar, Nick Smart’s love of minimalist composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Jordan’s immersion in the different sound worlds of DJ culture and the spiritual jazz of Pharaoh Sanders.

Ironically it was a bassist, label mates GoGo Penguin’s Nick Blacka who recommended the trio to Matthew Halsall of the Manchester based Gondwana record label. Blacka had heard the band at the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival in Birmingham and immediately spotted their potential. “Animalia” was recorded in Manchester in December 2013 with Halsall producing assisted by engineer George Atkins. It’s a hugely impressive début, a worthy addition to the Gondwana catalogue and a release that is likely to have the same kind of impact as GoGo Penguin’s initial offering “Fanfares”. Now also appears to be good time to congratulate GoGo Penguin on the Mercury Music Prize nomination for their second album “v2.0”, while stating that it’s perfectly possible that Mammal Hands might emulate them at some future juncture. “Animalia” is also an album that may attract the attention of adventurous rock fans.   

From the outset it’s immediately apparent that Mammal Hands are a highly democratic ensemble and that the overall group sound is the paramount factor in their music with all the pieces being collectively composed.  There is little in the way of conventional jazz soloing although both saxophone and piano alternate in leading the band. Pianist Nick Smart fulfils an important rhythmic function throughout and his overall contribution is hugely impressive.

As writers Mammal Hands exhibit a strong sense of melody and there are some catchy, instantly memorable tunes on this album beginning with opener “Mansions Of Millions Of Years”, the title derived from Egyptian mythology (perhaps the same legend that inspired Van Der Graaf Generator’s “The Boat Of Millions Of Years”). Beginning with sparse piano chords and brushed drum grooves the piece also features the flowingly melodic soprano sax of Jordan Smart, his tone similar to that of Portico Quartet’s Jack Wyllie. The Portico comparison has been made by numerous reviewers and justifiably so, and it’s interesting to note that both bands started their careers as buskers - Mammal Hands first got together on the streets of Norwich while Portico used to busk outside London’s South Bank Centre . The point is that in such an environment strong, attention grabbing melodies are a must and both bands have these in abundance. However for all their accessibility there is no hint of any compromise with regard to either band’s artistic integrity, they just have the enviable gift of writing good tunes.

Following the hooky opener “Snow Bough” exhibits a gentler, more lyrical side of the band, a beautiful melancholy miniature that suggests the chilly beauty of a still winter’s day. Spacious piano chording combines with a simple, unadorned sax melody and the atmospheric colouring of the drums, a mallet rumble here, a cymbal shimmer there. It’s an appealing palette cleanser before the next hook and groove laden offering “Kandaiki” which deploys melodies inspired by Irish folk music alongside hypnotic piano and drum grooves with Nick Smart’s left hand again fulfilling a vital role, his rhythmic patterns frequently recalling the compelling percolations of Nick Mulvey’s hang drums in Portico’s early days. Subtly shifting time signatures help to ensure that the piece evolves compulsively with the listener swept up in the momentum.

The darker, moodier “Spinning The Wheel” also draws on Irish folk melody but Barratt’s broken beats and grooves owe more to the worlds of electronica and hip hop. The drummer’s contribution adds an edge that contrasts well with the plaintive, keening melodicism of Jordan Smart’s sax.

“Bustle” is aptly titled, driven by Nick Smart’s busy, odd meter piano patterns and featuring Barratt’s ticking, broken beats plus snatches of melodic sax. The piece progresses through several phases and also features Barratt on tabla as the Indian influence becomes more obvious. Israeli born bassist and composer Avishai Cohen has also been cited as another inspiration behind this piece. This is music that revels in its complexity yet never seeks to alienate the listener.

“Inuit Party” is perhaps the most episodic composition thus far, progressing from a sombre opening passage through sections of full on groove featuring Jordan Smart’s soulful tenor to a more abstract ending containing hints of free jazz dissonance.

The orchestral music of Leonard Bernstein is cited as an influence on “Street Sweeper” (maybe there’s just a hint of “America” in there). Here the trio groove even harder and faster than on “Inuit Party” and Barratt shines on a lively percussion break as he and Nick Smart combine to produce a mighty rhythmic drive.

Finally we hear “Tiny Crumb”, the lengthiest item on the record and a piece with a strong narrative arc that takes its inspiration from the music of Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson. With Jordan Smart on tenor it is perhaps closer to straight ahead jazz in the way that it develops its theme and incorporates an increasingly impassioned sax solo. An insistent, highly rhythmic second section that owes more to contemporary developments features Barratt’s use of tabla. 

“Animalia” is a highly accomplished début from a very capable young band who have already established an enviable reputation for the quality and excitement of their live shows. Immaculately produced by Halsall it’s a compelling snapshot of their abilities with strong tunes, hugely accomplished playing and a distinctive group identity. Collectively Mammal Hands are a lean and effective unit, there’s precious little flab on this arresting and compelling CD.

If there’s a criticism - and I don’t wish to labour the point - it’s that they still sound rather too similar to early Portico Quartet for comfort but I suspect that the resemblance will become less pronounced as the career of Mammal Hands progresses. There’s clearly great potential here and in any case sounding like one of my favourite groups of recent years is no bad thing. Overall I was highly impressed with Mammal Hands who now find themselves on my personal “bands I must see” list for the coming months.  Meanwhile high quality videos of the trio performing “Mansions Of Millions Of Years” and “Kandaiki” can be found at http://www.mammal-hands.tumblr.com 

 

Animalia

Mammal Hands

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Animalia

A highly accomplished début from a very capable young band who have already established an enviable reputation for the quality and excitement of their live shows.

Mammal Hands

“Animalia”

(Gondwana Records GOND012)

Mammal Hands are a young trio from Norwich consisting of brothers Nick Smart (piano) and Jordan Smart (saxophones) plus drummer and percussionist Jesse Barratt. The Smarts were already working as an electronica duo before encountering Barratt in April 2012 at which point their music gravitated in a more obviously jazz orientated direction. The bassless line up might suggest some kind of chamber jazz but instead the music of Mammal Hands is unexpectedly rhythmic, dynamic and exciting and also reflects the trio’s interests in electronic, contemporary classical and world music. These include Barratt’s knowledge of Indian rhythms learned during his studies with tabla master Sirishkumar, Nick Smart’s love of minimalist composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Jordan’s immersion in the different sound worlds of DJ culture and the spiritual jazz of Pharaoh Sanders.

Ironically it was a bassist, label mates GoGo Penguin’s Nick Blacka who recommended the trio to Matthew Halsall of the Manchester based Gondwana record label. Blacka had heard the band at the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival in Birmingham and immediately spotted their potential. “Animalia” was recorded in Manchester in December 2013 with Halsall producing assisted by engineer George Atkins. It’s a hugely impressive début, a worthy addition to the Gondwana catalogue and a release that is likely to have the same kind of impact as GoGo Penguin’s initial offering “Fanfares”. Now also appears to be good time to congratulate GoGo Penguin on the Mercury Music Prize nomination for their second album “v2.0”, while stating that it’s perfectly possible that Mammal Hands might emulate them at some future juncture. “Animalia” is also an album that may attract the attention of adventurous rock fans.   

From the outset it’s immediately apparent that Mammal Hands are a highly democratic ensemble and that the overall group sound is the paramount factor in their music with all the pieces being collectively composed.  There is little in the way of conventional jazz soloing although both saxophone and piano alternate in leading the band. Pianist Nick Smart fulfils an important rhythmic function throughout and his overall contribution is hugely impressive.

As writers Mammal Hands exhibit a strong sense of melody and there are some catchy, instantly memorable tunes on this album beginning with opener “Mansions Of Millions Of Years”, the title derived from Egyptian mythology (perhaps the same legend that inspired Van Der Graaf Generator’s “The Boat Of Millions Of Years”). Beginning with sparse piano chords and brushed drum grooves the piece also features the flowingly melodic soprano sax of Jordan Smart, his tone similar to that of Portico Quartet’s Jack Wyllie. The Portico comparison has been made by numerous reviewers and justifiably so, and it’s interesting to note that both bands started their careers as buskers - Mammal Hands first got together on the streets of Norwich while Portico used to busk outside London’s South Bank Centre . The point is that in such an environment strong, attention grabbing melodies are a must and both bands have these in abundance. However for all their accessibility there is no hint of any compromise with regard to either band’s artistic integrity, they just have the enviable gift of writing good tunes.

Following the hooky opener “Snow Bough” exhibits a gentler, more lyrical side of the band, a beautiful melancholy miniature that suggests the chilly beauty of a still winter’s day. Spacious piano chording combines with a simple, unadorned sax melody and the atmospheric colouring of the drums, a mallet rumble here, a cymbal shimmer there. It’s an appealing palette cleanser before the next hook and groove laden offering “Kandaiki” which deploys melodies inspired by Irish folk music alongside hypnotic piano and drum grooves with Nick Smart’s left hand again fulfilling a vital role, his rhythmic patterns frequently recalling the compelling percolations of Nick Mulvey’s hang drums in Portico’s early days. Subtly shifting time signatures help to ensure that the piece evolves compulsively with the listener swept up in the momentum.

The darker, moodier “Spinning The Wheel” also draws on Irish folk melody but Barratt’s broken beats and grooves owe more to the worlds of electronica and hip hop. The drummer’s contribution adds an edge that contrasts well with the plaintive, keening melodicism of Jordan Smart’s sax.

“Bustle” is aptly titled, driven by Nick Smart’s busy, odd meter piano patterns and featuring Barratt’s ticking, broken beats plus snatches of melodic sax. The piece progresses through several phases and also features Barratt on tabla as the Indian influence becomes more obvious. Israeli born bassist and composer Avishai Cohen has also been cited as another inspiration behind this piece. This is music that revels in its complexity yet never seeks to alienate the listener.

“Inuit Party” is perhaps the most episodic composition thus far, progressing from a sombre opening passage through sections of full on groove featuring Jordan Smart’s soulful tenor to a more abstract ending containing hints of free jazz dissonance.

The orchestral music of Leonard Bernstein is cited as an influence on “Street Sweeper” (maybe there’s just a hint of “America” in there). Here the trio groove even harder and faster than on “Inuit Party” and Barratt shines on a lively percussion break as he and Nick Smart combine to produce a mighty rhythmic drive.

Finally we hear “Tiny Crumb”, the lengthiest item on the record and a piece with a strong narrative arc that takes its inspiration from the music of Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson. With Jordan Smart on tenor it is perhaps closer to straight ahead jazz in the way that it develops its theme and incorporates an increasingly impassioned sax solo. An insistent, highly rhythmic second section that owes more to contemporary developments features Barratt’s use of tabla. 

“Animalia” is a highly accomplished début from a very capable young band who have already established an enviable reputation for the quality and excitement of their live shows. Immaculately produced by Halsall it’s a compelling snapshot of their abilities with strong tunes, hugely accomplished playing and a distinctive group identity. Collectively Mammal Hands are a lean and effective unit, there’s precious little flab on this arresting and compelling CD.

If there’s a criticism - and I don’t wish to labour the point - it’s that they still sound rather too similar to early Portico Quartet for comfort but I suspect that the resemblance will become less pronounced as the career of Mammal Hands progresses. There’s clearly great potential here and in any case sounding like one of my favourite groups of recent years is no bad thing. Overall I was highly impressed with Mammal Hands who now find themselves on my personal “bands I must see” list for the coming months.  Meanwhile high quality videos of the trio performing “Mansions Of Millions Of Years” and “Kandaiki” can be found at http://www.mammal-hands.tumblr.com 

 


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