Welcome To Bat Country
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
“Welcome To Bat Country” sees Allsopp honing an increasingly individual and distinctive TGAOS sound with the group moving out of the shadow of its influences.
The Golden Age Of Steam
“Welcome To Bat Country”
(Basho Records SRCD 40-1)
The second TGAOS album builds on the success of their hugely promising 2010 début “Raspberry Tongue” (Babel), a recording reviewed elsewhere on this site. A move to Basho Records sees the core trio of James Allsopp (reeds), Kit Downes (keyboards) and Tim Giles (drums) augmented on some pieces by Ruth Goller on electric bass and Alex Bonney on trumpet. Bonney is also heavily involved in the recording process acting as both co-engineer (with Ben Lamdin) and co-producer (with Allsopp). James Whidden (violin and viola) and Alison Holford (cello) combine to create the sound of a string quartet on the piece “Quiet Now”.
As previously the music of TGAOS is the sole compositional province of Allsopp who brings to “Bat Country” the same surreal musical sense of humour that graced “Raspberry Tongue”. Taking its title from a phrase coined by the great Hunter S. Thompson the new record is a “concept album”of sorts. Allsopp deploys the notion of a kind of run down, sinister, psychedelic circus in the noble tradition of The Beatles (“Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”), King Crimson (“Circus” from the “Lizard” album) and Procol Harum (In Held ‘Twas In I”); TGAOS routinely get compared to prog bands so it’s quite appropriate to unearth these old relics. Jazzier antecedents might include Loose Tubes/ Django Bates and Nick Ramm’s Clown Revisted project and crossing the pond there’s something of Tom Waits and of Carla Bley too.
“Bat Country” comes in a charming and striking CD package that references the tune titles. To me it looks like the work of illustrator and animator Lesley Barnes who worked with Downes on his “Quiet Tiger” album but sadly she is not acknowledged in the album’s credits (it’s conceivable that the artwork may be by Allsopp himself, he provided the equally whimsical illustrations for “Raspberry Tongue” but the work here is very much in Barnes’ style).
Each of the album’s six pieces is illuminated by a short liner note comment from Allsopp. Of opener “Animal Slices” Allsopp says “meat related accident leaves clown facing early retirement”. The press release expands on this explaining that the juggling clown has pawned his clubs to placate a loan shark and is reduced to juggling with pieces of salami accompanied by the sound of a knackered barrel organ. Downes’ keyboards make the appropriate noises on the intro before Goller and Giles establish an off kilter but subtly funky groove punctuated by stabs of saxophone, keyboard and trumpet. There’s a suitably surreal feeling about the whole affair as Allsopp and Downes meander through the piece with the keyboardist conjuring up a rich variety of sounds.
“Waffle Throne” (“a cat may look at a king”) begins in more reflective manner and even includes the sampled purring of Freddie the cat! The piece is highly atmospheric and evokes the feeling of the circus, quiet and deserted in the dead of night, through it’s combination of quietly brooding reeds, delicately needling Hammond and colourful, subtly nuanced percussion. A more assertive second section has Downes producing a low register gospel growl from his Hammond as the piece turns more celebratory and anthemic.
The kind of juxtaposition of moods that occurs in “Waffle Throne” reaches its apotheosis on “Aglow/Piano Dentist”, really a segue that begins with the lush pastoralism of “Aglow”, complete with flute and Allsopp’s wordless choral vocals before mutating into the drum and electric bass (Goller) driven skronk of “Piano Dentist” with Allsopp torturing his sax in Albert Ayler fashion alongside Downes’ crazed Hammond playing. It’s an approach that owes something both to Allsopp’s former outfit, those sonic terrorists Fraud (featuring the guitar of Stian Westerhus), and to Troyka, one of Downes’ many other projects.
As befits its title “Quiet Now” (“Dream final dreams, sleep final sleep”) calms things down but its eerie atmospherics, including the string sounds of Widden and Holford, exude the same air of vague menace that hangs over much of TGAOS’s music. “Welcome To Bat Country” really does inhabit a parallel universe, an ethereal, faintly unsettling musical world of its very own.
“Butter Dome” takes us back to the circus and “Obese motorcyclist contemplates gravity, whilst outside the bats are circling ever closer”. The sepulchral, Wait-sian, deep baritone voice of Andrew Plummer introduces the piece by intoning “what goes up must come crashing down”. He sets the tone for Downes’ increasingly unhinged fairground organ sounds, Giles’ loose limbed drumming and Allsopp’s sporadic tenor sax interjections. Augmented by sampled crowd noise (samples,found sounds and electronic glitches pepper the album, no doubt the result of Bonney’s involvement) the piece is a tour de force for Downes who adds bass lines with his pedals. The organist is in inspired form throughout the album coaxing a wide and impressive variety of sounds from his instrument.
Closing track “Bat Country” is Allsopp’s homage to Hunter S. Thompson (“Fast car, Hawaiian shirts, suitcase full of drugs, what could possibly go wrong?”). An appropriately spooky extended intro leads to passages of fragmented riffs and more reflective episodes. It’s edgy and restless, but highly atmospheric, and is completely in character with the rest of the album.
Despite its occasional longueurs “Welcome To Bat Country” sees Allsopp honing an increasingly individual and distinctive TGAOS sound that draws as before not only on jazz and modern classical music (Messiaen, Ligeti) but also increasingly on electronica. “Welcome To Bat Country” is full of fascinating sounds and the playing, particularly by Downes, is colourful and imaginative throughout with the group moving out of the shadow of its influences. However it may all sound a little too mannered, quirky and whimsical for some listeners.
Recent live performances have seen the core trio of Allsopp, Downes and Giles augmented by Goller and Bonney to form a TGAOS quintet. I hope to check out this line up on January 30th, 2013 when TGAOS share a double bill with Troyka at the Hare and Hounds in King’s Heath, Birmingham, a gig promoted by the Jazzlines organisation. Kit’s going to be a very busy boy that evening.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.