by Ian Mann
July 25, 2013
A thrilling if sometimes exhausting listen. WSP mix styles and genres, happily hopping from one to another in the course of a single tune like frogs on acid.
“Fire In A Pet Shop”
(Mega Sound Records MSM025)
There’s been quite a buzz about this second album by the young London based band WorldService Project and rightly so. I first discovered the group’s music at the 2011 Brecon Jazz Festival when they played a barnstorming Sunday lunchtime set that blew away the cobwebs and quickly roused the audience out of any kind of weekend lethargy. The material was in part drawn from their début album “Relentless” but there were also a number of excellent new tunes, many of which have now found their way on to this latest release. I remember remarking at the time that the group’s new album was going to be something of a killer and I’m pleased to report that I’ve been proved right.
It’s been quite a couple of years for this dynamic young band. They’ve been instrumental in setting up a series of musical exchanges with similarly inclined young groups of musicians from across Europe under the generic title Match & Fuse. WSP have been part of “double header” tours in both the UK and Europe with each band playing a set each before a final “mash up” featuring the members of both groups. The success of these tours has since led to an annual Match & Fuse Festival, the first of these held in and around London’s Gillett Square (home of The Vortex) in 2012 was a tremendous success and in 2013 the festival moved to Oslo, again generating considerable critical and popular acclaim. It’s planned that the festival will visit a different European city each year, I think Rome’s been slated for 2014 and Warsaw for the year after. Even when the main festival is elsewhere WSP will continue to organise a “Mini Match & Fuse” festival in London.
WSP have also released a number of limited edition Match & Fuse EPs, many of them recorded live, each with a different European “partner”, these bands including Synkoke (Norway), Schulbus (Germany), ReDiviDeR” (Ireland), Tribraco (Italy) and Alfie Ryner (France). Reviews of a number of these appear elsewhere on this site and although some of the “Fire In A Pet Shop” tunes have appeared on these in no way does that reduce the impact of the album.
I caught up with WSP again at the 2012 London Jazz Festival when they headlined a Match & Fuse style triple bill at a packed Vortex alongside the Norwegian group Pixel and the rising star British outfit Roller Trio. It was a terrific night with each band in fine form and with a real buzz and sense of energy in the air. WSP again featured several of the tunes to be heard on the new album and it’s good to have the definitive versions committed to disc at last.
The phrase “Fire In A Pet Shop” is sometimes used pejoratively as a description of freely improvised music. WSP seem to have picked up on this and decided to name a tune and even an album after it. The choice is a reflection of the group’s ironic sense of humour. For all their technical abilities WSP like to have fun with their music, pitting styles and tempos against one another in the course of a single tune, mixing up genres and rapidly and sometimes violently flitting from one to another. Keyboard player and chief composer Dave Morecroft has described his group’s music as “like a cage fight between Weather Report, Stravinsky, Meshuggah, Frank Zappa and Monty Python”. I’ve also felt that there’s plenty of the Loose Tubes/Django Bates spirit in there too, not only with regard to the irreverent nature of the writing but also Morecroft’s scorching synth and electric piano playing.
Morecroft may be the mainstay of the band but his young colleagues also deserve credit. Tim Ower (saxophones), Raphael Clarkson (trombone) and Conor Chaplin (electric bass) are all highly accomplished technicians. “Fire In A Pet Shop” was recorded in April 2012 and also features former drummer Neil Blandford. By the time of the Vortex show last November Blandford had departed and been replaced by Liam Waugh who fitted in just seamlessly (albeit after some pretty intense rehearsals of the band’s complex material).
Released on the Italian Megasound label “Fire In A Pet Shop” has a harder edged sound than its predecessor and really goes for the throat. It’s engineered by Robert Harder who has often recorded groups operating in a broadly similar musical area, Polar Bear coming immediately to mind. All the compositions are Morecroft’s and the band have tremendous fun with them, tackling the complex arrangements with verve and panache.
“Defrienders” comes roaring out of the blocks, with powerful drums, squalling horns and glitchy keyboards. There are bone shaking riffs in bizarre time signatures, scuds of free noise, deliberately cheesy moments that sound like the music of arcade gaming machines and more.
The title track explodes almost seamlessly out of this like some kind of bizarre segue. There’s more visceral but complicated riffery, and crazy moments when instruments and voices approximate animal noises. At one point Blandford slams out an exaggerated back beat as Clarkson rasps fruitily on trombone in a kind of bastardised New Orleans style. Then it’s back to a series of frenzied stop/start prog rock inspired riffs. The genre crunching WSP appear to have ideas, if not animals, to burn.
“Barmy Army” begins with appropriately martial sounding drums, these subsequently colliding with dirty, squalling keyboards and carousing horns. There are cheesy finger snaps, more New Orleans style trombone, and finally some bone crunching riffs lashed on by Blandford’s brutal drumming. As on so many WSP pieces there’s so much going on that it’s hard to describe in a way that makes emotional or logical sense.
Braying horns and grungy keyboards introduce “Villain Of The Aeroplane” (a natural successor to the previous album’s “Hero of The Bus” ). The piece includes some of WSP’s most powerful riffs albeit in some fashionably difficult time signatures. There’s some of the band’s famous humour at play too, a noise approximating the sound of an airport tannoy announcement presages a brief feature for Chaplin’s bass. WSP don’t do jazz solos as such, although entertaining cameos crop up everywhere. But really it’s the ensemble sound that’s the key in this tricky, tightly meshed but paradoxically highly entertaining music. Morecroft’s output may be a challenge to the musicians but it’s one they clearly relish.
The sprawling"Change The F**king Record” (as it appears on the cover) contains some of the band’s brutal riffing alongside gentler funk and soul inspired interludes. The habitually mischievous WSP throw in a deliberate glitch in an attempt to get the listener out of his chair and at least examine the f**king record (or CD in this case). Following this piece of irreverence the track ends with a Blandford drum barrage and some splendid brawling between the horns. Great, if rather exhausting, fun.
The energy levels don’t flag on “Dance Of The Clown” which grows out of a pattern of handclaps to embrace a kind of demented circus music juxtaposed with WSP’s trademark odd meter skronky riffs (shades of Django Bates again). Besides the music the mix includes deranged laughter and other vocal interjections. Apparently recent WSP shows have seen the group donning clown and animal masks as their irreverent sense of humour becomes even more pronounced. It’s also a thinly disguised marketing ploy, a grudging acknowledgement that in this image conscious age even the most musically uncompromising of groups has to make a bit of effort to make a show and present something a bit distinctive. And in any case it’s really not that much different to what Loose Tubes were doing around twenty five years ago.
At the time of “Relentless” much was made of WSP’s funkiness, this before the Zappa and Zorn comparisons really took hold. “Small Town Girl” includes elements of exaggerated funk courtesy of Morecroft’s Rhodes, Blandford’s punchy drumming and Chaplin’s grinding bass. Here Morecroft really cuts loose with an alternately rumbling and whooshing Rhodes solo.
After the roller coaster ride of the previous seven pieces the closing track “Cunha” initially promises to be the comedown, WSP’s equivalent to the chill out lounge. But this band can’t help themselves, out of the eerie electronica emerges another burst of bludgeoning riffery, this gradually falling away before further flourishes and fades. This piece seems to contain more post production work than the rest of the album and suggests possible future avenues for the group to explore.
“Fire In A Pet Shop” represents a thrilling if sometimes exhausting listen. For all its complexity WSP’s music is also very immediate and it comes as no surprise to learn that they’ve accrued something of a cult following and that their live shows are wildly exciting. It’s clever stuff and I love the way they mix styles and genres, happily hopping from one to another in the course of a single tune like frogs on acid. Some listeners may find it all a bit much, “relentless” even, and I agree that there isn’t a lot of light and shade in the emotional sense. But there’s still plenty of variety and intelligence and more importantly irreverence and excitement plus of course some terrific playing. The youthful WSP are frighteningly good technicians with the ability to handle anything Morecroft throws at them. I love this band and I also admire the concept behind the Match & Fuse movement plus WSP’s energy and determination to make it work.
If there’s any justice this album should be the one that breaks WSP to a wider audience. It captures their strengths to perfection and hints strongly at the energy and humour of their live shows. A good candidate for a Mercury nomination I’d say.
In his interview with Morecroft and Clarkson in the August 2013 edition of Jazzwise magazine Daniel Spicer compares WSP with the American band Mostly Other People Do The Killing, another of my favourite contemporary bands.He’s on to something there, both are irreverent, technically brilliant and wildly exciting and both have a wicked sense of humour. MOPDTK are more mannered and very obviously American but WSP are less in thrall to jazz history and make a great British counterpart with their own distinctive take on popular culture.
The 2013 Mini Match & Fuse Festival begins tonight (July 25th 2013) and continues tomorrow with performances at The Vortex in Dalston and Rich Mix in Bethnal Green. The line up includes Led Bib, Kairos 4tet, Troyka and others. For further information visit http://www.matchandfuse.co.ukblog comments powered by Disqus