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Bex Burch

There is Only Love and Fear

by Ian Mann

December 12, 2023


Music that is simultaneously atmospheric, thought provoking and eminently listenable. A successful blend of experimentation and accessibility. Burch’s first album under her own name is a triumph.

Bex Burch

“There is Only Love and Fear”

(International Anthem IARC 0064)

Bex Burch – xylophones, bells, drums, percussion, sanza, pitch pipes, water drum, tongue drum, piano, voice

with guests;

Mikel Patrick Avery – drums
Rob Frye – flute, clarinet, bass clarinet,  percussion
Anton Hatwich – double bass
Macie Stewart – violin, prepared piano
Dan Bitney – drums, synthesiser, bells, percussion
Anna Butters – double bass
Ben LaMar Gay – cornet, bells
Diego Gaeta – prepared piano, keyboard
Ben Lumsdaine – drums
Oren Marshall – tuba

Bex Burch is a Yorkshire born percussionist, composer and bandleader currently based in Berlin. She is best known to UK audiences as the leader of the band Vula Viel, with whom she has released three albums and an EP of remixes.

Burch started drumming aged three (in the church choir) and then at seven a chance encounter with a djembe player inspired her to study percussion. Attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she played in classical groups and was introduced to Steve Reich’s riff-based minimalism. Intrigued by the Ghanaian influence on Reich’s music, another chance encounter, with Guildhall orchestral porter, Bill Bannerman, led to a new friendship and an invitation to visit his family in Ghana’s capital Accra. Inspired by the music and culture she took a gap year, travelling to each of the country’s ten regions studying their music traditions. There she first met Thomas Segkura master xylophonist and the gyil, the master xylophone of the Dagaare tribe.

Segkura invited Burch to be his apprentice. She lived in Ghana for three years, completed her apprenticeship, bought land, built a house, worked as a xylophone maker (making her own instrument) and farmed land for food. She picked up some of the Dagaare language and absorbed the gyil music itself, eventually playing at funerals - the main arena for the gyil music making. On passing out of the apprenticeship, she was given the name Vula Viel, meaning ‘Good is Good ‘along with the advice: “All we have given you is yours, and all you have given us is ours. The good you do remains when you die.” 

Following Segkura’s sad passing in 2010, Burch transitioned from apprentice to a teacher herself. Eventually moving back to her home country, she formed the band Vula Viel., playing original music based on traditional Dagaare forms. The first edition of the band featured saxophonist George Crowley, keyboard player Dan Nicholls and twin drummers Simon Roth and Dave De Rose. This line up recorded the “Good is Good” album and the remix EP “Yes Yaa Yaa” (both 2015).

Multi-instrumentalist Jim Hart had guested on “Good is Good”, playing vibraphone. The second edition of Vula Viel was a trio featuring Hart at the drum kit and Ruth Goller on electric bass. This line up recorded “Do Not Be Afraid” (2019) and “What’s Not Enough About That?”  (2020). Although still based on Dagaare forms the music was now more song based and featured vocals from both Burch and Goller. It also helped the band to attract a young following, beyond the usual demographic.

The Jazzmann has been fortunate enough to see Vula Viel performing live on a couple of occasions, the first in 2016 when the original five piece group played at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, Birmingham, supported by local kora player Dan Wilkins.
In 2019 I saw the Burch / Hart / Goller version of the band playing material from the “Do Not Be Afraid” album at that year’s Cheltenham Festival. Both of these performances are reviewed elsewhere on this site.

In addition to her work with Vula Viel Burch has performed in a duo with sound artist Leafcutter John, releasing the album “Boing!” in 2021. With Burch playing various types of percussion and Leafcutter featuring on modular synth and sequencers much of the music was recorded during a series of online Zoom improvisations at the height of the 2020 Covid lockdowns.

Burch has also been part of Flock, a London based quintet featuring drummer / percussionist / vocalist Sarathy Korwar, pianist / keyboard player Al MacSween, multi-reeds player Tamar Osborn and synthesiser player / producer Dan Leavers aka Danalogue. This stellar ensemble first came together in March 2020 and continued to collaborate around the lockdown restrictions, eventually releasing its self titled debut album in 2022.

It was in the summer of 2022 that Burch was invited by the Chicago based record label International Anthem (IARC) to spend a month in the US, playing and recording with like minded American musicians. She’s not the first Brit to have recorded for IARC, whose catalogue also includes recordings by Tom Skinner, Alabaster DePlume and Emma Jean Thackray. International Anthem was also the recorded home of the late great jaimie branch (1983-2022), a musician with a committed following in the UK.

Jumping at the chance offered by IARC Burch travelled to the US armed with her home made xylophone.  It’s listed as ‘xylophone’ in the album credits rather than ‘gyil’, perhaps because Burch constructed it to suit her own musical requirements rather than building it strictly in the Dagaare tradition.  The IARC label set up meetings with various musicians, among them branch associate Ben LaMar Gay and Dan Bitney, drummer with the avant rock group Tortoise.

Burch took the conscious decision not to prepare any music before the trip and each of the twelve, relatively short, tracks is rooted in collective improvisation. The pieces were recorded in a variety of locations and the album also includes examples of field recordings collected at various places on either side of the Atlantic. The finished recording also includes the extensive use of overdubbing, with Burch adding things to the initial improvisation as part of a process that she has described as “post-composition”. Working in conjunction with Burch the engineering and production team of Dave Vettraino, David Allen and Scotty McNiece also make substantial contributions to the sound of the finished work.

Reviewing the album for Jazzwise Magazine Tony Benjamin compared listening to “There is Only Love and Fear” to being taken on a journey and there’s certainly an atmospheric quality to the music, combined with a strong sense of narrative and an equally strong sense of place, with each track a self contained universe that somehow manages to remain part of a larger whole. One also senses that the recording has been a huge voyage of discovery for Burch herself.

The album commences with “Dawn blessings” and a field recording featuring footsteps in a forest and the calling of a cuckoo. Burch picks out a motif on her xylophone that forms the basis for the chamber jazz style improvisations of Rob Frye on flute, Macie Stewart on violin, Anton Hatwich on double bass and Mikel Patrick Avery on the drums. It almost sounds pre-composed and with the unusual combination of instruments it’s sometimes reminiscent of the sound of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Burch’s xylophone motif and Avery’s steady drum pulse provide the framework around which the interlocking melody lines of the other instruments intertwine. It represents a charming and atmospheric start.

“If I was you I’d be doing exactly the same” is more obviously improvised with a freely structured intro that features the breath generated sounds of Burch on pitch pipes and LaMar Gay on cornet. Hatwich and Anna Butters are both credited with double bass and I think I detect some eerie bowed bass sounds in the mix. More percussive sounds eventually begin to appear, generated by Burch on tongue drum and Bitney at the drum kit. The latter’s explosive playing helps to create a processional, New Orleans feel, with LaMar Gay’s playing now becoming more exuberant.

Bitney switches to synthesiser for “Don’t Go Back To Sleep”, a duet with Burch’s xylophone that also includes further sounds of sampled birdsong. The pulsing sounds of this track, whether generated acoustically by Burch or electronically by Bitney, are always slightly out of phase and will inevitably remind listeners of the music of Steve Reich. It’s a perfect example of Burch’s self descriptive brand of “messy minimalism”.

“Fruit smoothie with peanut butter” is a short but intense burst of African inspired drumming featuring Burch on water drum and tongue drum and Ben Lumsdaine at the kit, their percussive barrage augmented by the prepared piano sounds of Diego Gaeta.

The exuberant “Pardieu” features Burch’s whoops of delight above the vibrant rhythms generated by her playing of xylophone and other percussion. It’s a highly vibrant and rhythmic piece that also features the sounds of Avery on drums, Hatwich on double bass and Stewart on prepared piano, while Frye’s flute adds dashes of melody. It’s the piece that is perhaps closest in spirit to Vula Viel, particularly the first edition of the band.

“Start before you’re ready” was actually recorded before Burch departed for Chicago and is an expression of her love for the spontaneous and unprepared. It’s an approach that informs the whole album. “I jump before I’m ready and I learn in the falling”, she told Tony Benjamin.
It’s a short piece featuring the sounds of Burch’s xylophones meandering through a collage of found sounds, these ranging through traffic noise, running water, wildlife sounds and more.

There are more found sounds on “You thought you were free?”, which was recorded in Chicago at the time that a tornado warning was in force. Warning sirens can be heard on the introduction, as can the sounds of thunder and rain. But Burch and the band played on, ignoring the warnings to retreat to the studio basement. Burch and Bitney both feature on bells and drums, with LaMar Gaye featuring on bells and cornet. Burch admits that it was a frightening experience – “we were playing through our nerves, that knife edge of presence was really intense. We all just played through.”  The second half of the tune becomes a New Orleans style march, led by LaMar Gay’s cornet and with Frye’s clarinet and Oren Marshall’s walloping tuba bass line subsequently added remotely.
In many ways this represents the album’s key track, a piece fuelled by the Chicagoan experience of the tornado warning but harking back to New Orleans and ultimately to Africa. Dagaare funerals are a celebration of life rather than a mourning of death, and that’s a tradition that has crossed the Atlantic to become part of the New Orleans ‘second line’ tradition. Finally that celebratory march section, led by LaMar Gay, also feels like a tip of the hat to IARC label mate jaimie branch.

“Joy is not meant to be a crumb” emerges from eerie piano tinklings to embrace a lolloping, lopsided groove generated by Hatwich’s bass, Avery’s drums and Burch’s percussion. Frye is credited with flute and percussion and Stewart with prepared piano and violin. I’m reminded of the instrumental episodes on the classic Tom Waits albums “Swordfishtrombones” and “Raindogs”.

“On Falling” features the sampled sounds of dripping water combined with those of Burch on sanza, a type of African thumb piano, Gaeta on the western grand piano and Lumsdaine on percussion. It represents a moment of quiet and sombre reflection following the exuberance of the two previous pieces.

Xylophone sets the pace on “Follow me, I make you happy”, another excursion into a Waits-ian soundworld featuring the eerily exotic sounds of Frye’s bass clarinet, Stewart’s violin, Avery’s prepared piano and Hatwich’s grounding double bass.

“This is the sound of one voice” isn’t quite the solo performance that the title might suggest. That said it does briefly feature the sound of Birch’s singing voice, alongside her playing of sanza and shakers. However Anna Butters also plays a significant role on double bass, with Gaeta also featuring on electric keyboard.

The album concludes with “When love begins”, which begins quietly before exploding into exuberant, celebratory life, paced by Burch’s xylophone, Hatwich’s double bass and Avery’s whirlwind drumming. When the music finally winds down the album plays out with the sampled sounds of waves washing on a Baltic beach.

Burch’s first album under her own name is a triumph, a successful blend of experimentation and accessibility that combines the disciplines of improvisation and post composition / production to create music that is simultaneously atmospheric, thought provoking and eminently listenable. Judicious editing has obviously played a considerable part in the finished production but the spirit of adventure, spontaneity and improvisation very much remains. With percussion instruments at its heart it remains a very human record, despite the use of electronic technology.

The ‘bite sized’ nature of the tracks ensures that no piece outstays its welcome and this is music that is likely to be welcomed by the Late Junction / Night Tracks audience. It’s certainly received a very positive response from my fellow music critics and I suspect that it will be equally well received by the more discerning members of the wider listening public.


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