by Ian Mann
October 24, 2016
“Atlas” succeeds on every level. Fat-Suit's music may often be viscerally exciting but it's also packed with sonic detail and imbued with an underlying subtlety and sophistication.
(Equinox Records EQX004CD)
Fat-Suit are a young contemporary big band from Scotland who play high energy but highly sophisticated music that took its original inspiration from the astonishingly successful US group Snarky Puppy.
Initially conceived as a Snarky Puppy tribute band Fat-Suit now write all their own material and “Atlas” represents their third album release. I was fortunate enough to witness a fourteen strong version of the band give a rip-roaring performance in the Clore Ballroom at the Southbank Centre as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival.
Writing at the time I commented;
“Fat-Suit draw on many genres including jazz, funk, rock and folk and this was a performance to enjoy rather than analyse. With some dynamic grooves, crunching, razor sharp ensemble playing and some sparky solos from all sections of the band this was a technically proficient, but above all very exciting, performance. Fat-Suit are a great live band who are likely to appeal to a very broad constituency, not just hard core jazz fans. They work at their presentation but there’s no sense of them ‘dumbing down’ their music for their audience. Like their initial inspiration Fat-Suit are loud, sassy and brassy and the Clore audience absolutely loved them”.
The band first came together at the University of Strathclyde and are co-led by guitarist Dorian Cloudsley and saxophonist Scott Murphy. Named Fat-Suit because they are “a big outfit” the band has a large number of musicians upon whom it call and “Atlas” features no fewer than twenty seven performers.
For the record the line up on this album is;
Murray McFarlane, Alex Sharples – trumpets & flugelhorns
Scott Murphy – tenor & soprano saxophones
Liam Shortall – trombone
Mhairi Marwick – violin
Ustav Lal, Alan Benzie, Craig McMahon – keyboards
Dorian Cloudsley – acoustic & electric guitars
Andrew Cowan – electric guitar
Angus Tikka – bass guitar
Mark Scobbie, Ewan Lang – drums
Martyn Hodge, Stephen Henderson – percussion
The above is the core line up but there are also guest appearances from;
Megan Henderson – vocals
Izzie Pendlebury – clarsach
Katie Rush, Adam Sutherland, Ailsa Taylor – violins
Sarah Leonard, Christine Anderson – violas
Alice Allen, Rachel Wilson – cellos
Phil Hague, Glynn Forrest - marimbas
The album was recorded over the course of three days at Cottiers Theatre in Glasgow, a converted church with a superb acoustic. The band are quick to thank their production and engineering team of Gus Sirrat, Fraser Jackson and Graham Coe, with Sirrat being singled out for some particularly fulsome praise for his efforts.
The material on “Atlas” comprises of ten original pieces composed by members of the band and the album commences with Murphy’s “Colours Burst Behind Closed Eyes” which emerges slowly and atmospherically in an evocative wash of orchestral style strings. The lush swell is occasionally punctuated by an ominous, but not totally realised, electronic keyboard pulse. The piece acts as a kind of overture and is hardly your typical brash, rousing big band opener. From the very beginning it’s obvious that Fat-Suit are impervious to genres and are consistently looking to create something different. It also makes it clear that they approach studio projects in a very different manner to live work.
Pizzicato strings characterise the opening of McMahon’s Japanese inspired “Mr. Hinomaru” which features a beguiling blend of strings, horns and keyboards plus a rich seam of percussive sounds, including those of the guest marimba players. There’s a delightful folk style violin solo, presumably played by Marwick – unfortunately individual soloists are not listed in the album credits, which is a pity.
Rock and funk elements inform Cloudsley’s “Sparks” which passes through several stylistic phases during its five-and-a-bit minute duration. Again there’s a skilful marrying of strings and horns, acoustic and electric sounds, and a dizzying array of various musical styles. Fat Suit’s music is constantly evolving and mutating, this is a band that is always on the move, with musical ideas to burn
There’s more funk on McMahon’s bizarrely titled “Nuscle In My Link”, a joyous and playful outpouring of ideas that includes some stunning synthesiser soloing, some of it presumably by the composer.
Drummer Mark Scobbie’s “For The Wicked” matches strong, sometimes complex, rhythms with punchy horns and brooding electronic textures on a piece that is perpetually evolving, a constant characteristic of Fat-Suit’s music. There’s a powerful and inventive electric guitar solo but again the album credits don’t delineate which of the twin axemen is responsible.
The nine minute “Twisted Clouds” is a composition by the band’s Ukrainian born keyboard player Utsav Lal. Arranged by Lal and saxophonist Scott Murphy it’s an episodic and often atmospheric piece of writing with a strong narrative arc that variously borrows from jazz, folk and contemporary classical music with the hint of a minimalist influence in the tune’s early stages. Despite Lal’s origins there’s a certain sense of British whimsicality about some sections of the piece that also suggests the influence of Django Bates. Overall this a thoughtful and evocative composition that demonstrates Fat-Suit’s increasing musical maturity. The solos include features for acoustic piano and saxophone, presumably executed by the co-arrangers.
“Cowfords”, written by violinist Mhairi Marwick and co-arranged by Craig McMahon is the piece that shows the most obvious folk and Celtic influence with Marwick contributing some particularly beautiful playing. Again it’s a richly evocative composition with a divine melody, one that further demonstrates the band’s growing maturity. It’s a stirring and sometimes dramatic piece that has the capability of considerable cross genre appeal, a quality enhanced by the yearning wordless vocals of Megan Henderson.
Following two pieces in which they have demonstrated the subtler and gentler side of their collective musical persona Fat-Suit come roaring back with the horn and percussion driven “Messiah Complex”, written by Murphy. This is Fat-Suit at their ebullient best, giving Snarky Puppy a run for their money.
McMahon’s “Septimus” keeps the music in broadly the same area, contemporary fusion that scores high on the funk-o-meter but which also contains plenty of colour and textural interest, especially when a folk-ish counter melody enters the proceedings. There’s the usual clever synthesis of electric and acoustic sounds, including a feature for what sounds like vocalised trombone.
The album concludes with Cloudsley’s “The Poor Brooks’ Humble Fish Farm” which builds incrementally from simple beginnings, passing through several distinct phases, to a wide-screen anthemic magnificence. Like much of Fat-Suit’s music it’s almost orchestral in scope.
I was very impressed with my first sighting of Fat-Suit at last year’s LJF but this album reveals hidden depths and comprehensively proves that the band can cut it on record as well. Aided by their estimable engineering team the musicians of Fat-Suit have delivered an album that they can be proud of and one which stands up to repeated listenings. They may be a highly exciting live act but they’re accomplished studio craftspeople too.
“Atlas” succeeds on every level from the writing to the arranging, to the playing, to the production. These are pieces that consistently engage the attention with their broad range of colours, textures and dynamics, their skilful mixing of acoustic and electric sounds and a well integrated range of differing musical styles. Fat-Suit’s music may often be viscerally exciting but it’s also packed with sonic detail and imbued with an underlying subtlety and sophistication.
It’s tempting to refer to Fat-Suit as a “Scottish Loose Tubes” or a “21st Century Loose Tubes” but the strength and distinctiveness of their own collective musical personality places them beyond that. Perhaps a better comparison would be with Manchester’s similarly youthful Beats & Pieces Big Band, but again Fat-Suit are significantly different, not least because of the folk and classical influences within their music. In short Fat-Suit are a damn fine band in their own right, well worth checking out both live and on disc.
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