by Ian Mann
May 29, 2019
Combining rock energy and power with jazz chops this is music that is simultaneously viscerally exciting and intellectually satisfying.
Animal Society is a new quintet led by award winning guitarist and composer Joe Williamson.
A former Peter Whittingham Award winner Williamson has previously appeared on two albums as part of the collaborative quartet Square One. He is also a member of the group Strata.
In 2018 Williamson was named as Scotland’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year, being awarded the prize at the live final at that year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival.
Animal Society is a group that brings together Williamson’s various influences, these including jazz, prog and metal. “RISE” was issued in April 2018 and the press release accompanying my promo copy of the CD cites the band’s influences as including Rage Against the Machine, Pat Metheny and E.S.T.
A listener of my age, brought up in the prog rock era, can hear all sorts of other things in there as well, including some that Williamson himself has probably never even heard of, a classic case of great musical minds reaching the same point entirely independently of one another.
Although Williamson is the group’s sole composer and his guitar the dominant instrument Animal Society boasts an unusual and distinctive instrumental line up. It features not one, but two keyboard players, Alan Benzie, himself a former Scottish Young Jazz Musician of the Year, and Craig McMahon. Williamson’s Strata bandmate Graham Costello is at the drum kit and the line up is completed by Gus Stirrat on electric bass.
Of these Benzie is probably the best known to jazz audiences. A graduate of the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, USA, Benzie is the leader of his own acoustic piano trio with whom he has released two excellent albums, “Traveller’s Tales” (2015) and “Little Mysteries” (2018). He also plays electric keyboards with the Snarky Puppy influenced Scottish big band Fat Suit and appears on their barnstorming 2016 album release “Atlas”.
Animal Society is closer in spirit to Fat Suit than it is to Benzie’s trio and in the context of Williamson’s band Benzie plays electric keyboards, providing the majority of the keyboard solos. Meanwhile McMahon, the most recent recruit to the band and also a member of Fat Suit, provides electronic texturing and powerful synthesised bass lines.
The two keyboard line up and the obvious influence of metal on Animal Society’s music reminded me of Starebaby, the American quintet led by drummer and composer Dan Weiss. Starebaby, who recently appeared at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, also acknowledge a strong metal influence and sport two keyboard players in the shapes of Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell. It may be that they have influenced Animal Society, although in general Williamson’s writing is less complex and drum-centric than that of Weiss. However the two groups share a similar intensity in performance.
“RISE” features four lengthy original compositions from Williamson and clocks in at around the forty minute mark, making it practically an album in old money. BBC Radio Scotland presenter Seonaid Aitken described the band’s music as “jazz with a heavy rock edge” and it’s a summation that serves the music well. Yes, there’s plenty of hard edged metallic riffing and powerful grooves but there’s also a healthy degree of harmonic development and light and shade within Williamson’s shifting, ever evolving compositions.
“RISE” itself (the capitals are Williamson’s) opens the album and was also released as a single, attracting a considerable degree of online interest. It sets the template for the album as a whole as it roars out of the blocks with a barrage of drums and guitars in a manner akin to Deep Purple’s “Speed King”. Williamson then churns out some chunky math rock riffs, underscored by chiming keyboards and Costello’s powerhouse drumming. But it’s not all hammer and tongs, there are more contemplative and atmospheric moments too which help to establish the jazz credentials of the music. The episodic nature of the writing hints at the acknowledged Metheny influence but Williamson’s guitar never sounds like Pat’s, it’s far too raw and too obviously rock and metal influenced for that. Maybe Mahavishnu era John McLaughlin would be a better comparison with Williamson cranking out feverish solos as the band embrace and deliver the “heavy riffs, tight grooves and big guitar moments” that are promised in the press release.
With the exception of the slight lull after the furious opening salvo “RISE” is pretty much an intense outpouring of energy all the way through. “Illuminate” promises to be more contemplative and atmospheric as it emerges out of Costello’s mallet rumbles to incorporate spacey guitar and keyboard textures. But Animal Society aren’t a band that stands still, rarely settling on one atmosphere for long, and they’re soon ratcheting up the tension and increasing the energy levels.
There’s some more meaty riffing from the leader, aided and abetted by muscular electric bass and dynamic drumming. Benzie produces a searing synth solo that evokes comparisons with his work in Fat Suit. I’m also reminded of Snarky Puppy and of electric era Return to Forever. Williamson takes over with a guitar solo that skilfully mutates from gently ruminative to full on soaring anthemic magnificence. And there’s more to come as the music passes through several more phases, with Stirrat’s electric bass coming to the fore at one juncture before the guitars and synths take over once more, dovetailing dramatically before a rousing closing section that gives a degree of prominence to Costello’s volcanic drumming, although the riffing of the rest of the band is no less gargantuan. The way in which Williamson and his colleagues negotiate the dynamic contrasts that characterise his writing is consistently impressive, this is a group that effectively combines a youthful musical brio with the sophistication and maturity necessary to navigate the complexity of the material. This is music that is simultaneously viscerally exciting and intellectually satisfying.
“Ripples” commences with a set of suitably undulating arpeggios that shimmer atmospherically on the horizon as Costello switches to brushes and Stirrat provides a delightfully liquid and melodic electric bass solo. There’s even a dash of acoustic guitar from the leader. As the piece gradually gathers momentum Benzie delivers another astonishing synth solo on what sounds like a vintage analogue model, again dovetailing effectively with the cry of Williams’ soaring guitar, the leader subsequently assuming pole position and heading for the stratosphere, before eventually slowing down on re-entry.
The closing “Morning Star” emerges from a military style bass and drum groove and a melodic keyboard motif that shapes the direction of the track. Snatches of folk melody combine with heavy, prog like riffs, these punctuated by more reflective episodes such as the thoughtful Rhodes solo, presumably provided by Benzie. Williamson’s subsequent solo increases the energy levels as the guitarist reaches for the stars once more, spurred on by Costello’s powerful drumming. Again the music ebbs and flows, a brief contemplative moment only serving to clear the way for more monstrous riffing and flyaway guitar soloing, followed by a gently atmospheric conclusion as the piece resolves itself.
“RISE” represents a highly impressive début from Animal Society as the band combine rock energy and power with jazz chops to create music that is both exciting and intelligent. Much of it is pretty high octane stuff which might frighten away the jazz purists but for anybody, like myself, who can appreciate both jazz and rock there is much to enjoy here. Williamson’s writing is full of twists and turns and startling dynamic contrasts, thus ensuring that listeners are kept on their toes at all times.
I’m reminded of several different artists when listening to this, among them McLaughlin, Metheny and Corea. One reviewer suggested that Animal Society’s music is more akin to that of the post E.S.T. projects of Magnus Ostrom and Dan Berglund rather than E.S.T. itself, and I’d go along with that.
I also hear hints of King Crimson and of Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum II, the band in which rockers Gary Moore (guitar) and Don Airey (keyboards) flexed their jazz muscles.
On a more contemporary note I also see parallels between Animal Society and Flying Machines, the London based quartet led by guitarist and composer Alex Munk. Both bands readily fuse jazz and rock elements and do so with great energy and abandon. Flying Machines are quite happy to use the ‘f’ word and to describe their music as ‘fusion’ without any hint of embarrassment. I’d wager that Animal Society probably are too.
And I bet that like their London counterparts Animal Society are also a highly exciting live proposition. They’ve already performed extensively in Scotland, let’s hope that they get the chance to venture south of the border. After hearing this recording I’d relish the opportunity of seeing this exciting young quintet live.
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