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AlasNoAxis, The Vortex, London, 17/05/2010

by Tim Owen

May 25, 2010


The composition is the key, but it's the live charge of the band as collective, marrying the edgy thrill of improv to the raw power of rock, that makes them such a solid proposition.

Vortex, London
Jim Black - Drums
Hilmar Jensson - Electric guitar
Chris Speed - Tenor saxophone
Sk?li Sverrisson - Electric bass

Black’s ideas for AlasNoAxis are expressed in lengthy narrative song structures that are obviously through-composed. Individual virtuosity is not emphasised. In AlasNoAxis the individuals of the quartet are in harness to the compositions. Tenor saxophonist Chris Speed’s pared-back style has a pure vocal quality, and his playing is characterised by highly lyrical phrasing. It’s great to hear a tenor deployed to such effect, with Speed always compelling rather than merely forceful, the tenor saxophonist’s natural tendency to puissance effectively resisted. Sk?li Sverrisson’s bass has a funky plasticity that compliments Speed’s style wonderfully, while perhaps the closest bond is between Sverrisson and electric guitarist Hilmar Jensson, with whom he enjoys an ongoing partnership outside AlasNoAxis. Jensson can switch effortlessly between tightly-wound mood music and the punchy virility of rock riffage, which makes him ideal for Black’s music. He also mirror’s Black’s drumming style, which often locks into a steady groove but as frequently turns to drumming as punctuation, acting to spur rather than drive things forward. Black’s rhythmic drive emphasises the simple pleasures of rock’s groove, but his music can break down in an instant in ways that rock music cannot, so the mood of a piece can change at the speed of thought, giving it an impulsive, infectious quality. In concert Black’s compositions sometimes run together in the aural equivalent of a visual panorama. The occasional and tentative deployment of electronics for ambient effect, or rather to act as connective tissue, is a minor weakness. While the texture of the more recent AlasNoAxis albums has become increasingly ambient, Black has yet to find a satisfying way, in a live context, to integrate electronics into the meat of his compositions.

AlasNoAxis have been together for ten years, and the individuals in the band play together in numerous other contexts. Jensson is the exception. Other than his close association with Sverrisson he keeps busy with Kitchen Motors, an important Icelandic cultural organization that he co-founded, and by adding to an already impressive sessionography. Sverrisson, meanwhile, somehow finds time to act as Laurie Anderson’s music director while playing alongside Speed and Black in three bands, AlasNoAxis, Pachora and Human Feel, which have between them recorded fourteen albums over the past decade. Black’s association with Speed goes back further, at least to their late ?90s tenure in Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, at which time Black was also a key presence in Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio. As you might expect, such collective endeavour over the long term and at such a high level has invested AlasNoAxis with a cogent authority. Their particular blending of jazz and rock has neither the grandstanding flashiness of fusion nor the ramshackle indie posturing of a recent crop of youthful UK-based jazz acts. The comparisons to Metal that you may have read (Black or his publicist seem to like them, so there may be something in it) are seriously overstated. There is clarity and elegance of simplicity to AlasNoAxis music that comes from Black’s understanding that the straightforward recurrence of a beat is what makes rhythm so appealing. He marries that beat to the suppleness of jazz, and plays out his adventurous and unique conception in the company of three fine colourists who each have a keen grasp of dynamics that makes them all adept when it comes to navigating the contours of long-form compositions.

AlasNoAxis always keep the audience expectantly alert to the next development. They satisfy both the dedicated jazz fan who places a premium on spontaneity and the more casual listener who loves it when things lock together in familiar ways. With the twist of elegant funkiness supplied by Sverrisson, the charge of electricity injected by Jensson, and the melodious articulation of Speed AlasNoAxis tick all the boxes without being in the slightest formulaic. The composition is the key, but it’s the live charge of the band as collective, marrying the edgy thrill of improv to the raw power of rock, that makes them such a solid proposition.

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