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Flying Machines

New Life


by Ian Mann

October 26, 2018


Another impressive offering from Flying Machines.The music to be heard on “New Life” reflects a road honed tightness, togetherness and sense of purpose. This is a band capable of a broad appeal.

Flying Machines

“New Life”

(Ubuntu Music UBU00017)

“New Life” is the second album from Flying Machines, the quartet led by London based guitarist and composer Alex Munk. It follows their acclaimed eponymous début from 2016 and retains the same personnel with the leader again joined by Matt Robinson on piano, synthesiser and Fender Rhodes, Conor Chaplin on electric bass and Dave Hamblett at the drums.

 The band’s name draws on the inspiration of the leader’s late father Roger Munk, the man regarded as “the father of the modern technology airship” - or “Hybrid Air Vehicle” as they are now more commonly referred to. Honoured by the Royal Aeronautical Society Roger Munk worked with enormous lighter than air machines “bigger than football pitches and capable of flying at 20,000 ft. for weeks at a time”.  HAV, the company that he founded in 2007 is currently flight testing the world’s largest ever air vehicle.

Alex Munk studied at Leeds College of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in London and he retains close ties to both institutions. It’s these links that have led to a busy career as a highly adaptable and in demand sideman. Munk’s name has already appeared several times on the Jazzmann website on large ensemble recordings by trumpeters Jack Davies and Reuben Fowler and in connection with small group records by Hamblett, multi reed player Sam Rapley, pianist Tom Millar,  saxophonist Matt Anderson’s Wayne Shorter inspired Wildflower Sextet and the young collaborative Stoop Quintet. A highly versatile musician he has also worked with saxophonists Trish Clowes in her Tangent and Emulsion Ensembles and Stan Sulzmann in his Neon Orchestra. In addition he has recently been recruited by yet another saxophonist, Phil Meadows, for the latter’s latest project. Others with whom Munk has performed include trumpeter Nick Smart, pianists Ivo Neame and Gwilym Simcock, saxophonist Iain Ballamy, flautist Gareth Lockrane and organist James Taylor.

“New Life finds Flying Machines building on the success of their acclaimed début. Since the release of that first recording the band have toured extensively and the music to be heard on “New Life” reflects a road honed tightness, togetherness and sense of purpose. The new album features a harder edged, but still intensely melodic sound, something encouraged by the presence in the studio of the celebrated producer Sonny Johns, who has previously worked with Dinosaur, Polar Bear, Portico Quartet and others. Munk remains the group’s composer in residence but “New Life” also contains three pieces of collective improvisation credited as “made by the band on the fly”.  Under the guidance of Johns these are skilfully woven into the fabric of the album as a whole.

If you’ll pardon the use of the F-word Flying Machines essentially play ‘fusion’ , but do so from a thoroughly contemporary standpoint, drawing from the best of jazz and rock plus elements of electronic and ambient music. Munk’s influences include fellow guitarists Wayne Krantz, Pat Metheny and Mike Walker plus the pianist and composer  Tigran Hamasyan.  He is also a big admirer of the now defunct British trio Troyka, whose guitarist, Chris Montague, a long term associate and mentor of Munk’s, provides New Life’s insightful liner notes.

As photographer Gabe Shaughnessy’s cover images of the Veil Nebula suggest “New Life” sees Flying Machines soaring above the stratosphere and into outer space. The opening title track combines chunky, metallic math rock riffing with spacey keyboards and thunderous rhythms as Munk’s axe heads for the stars. It’s a turbo charged introduction that pins the listener’s ears back and demands that they hang on tight, revelling in the visceral thrill of it all.

There’s no let up with “Blink” a fifty one second blast of jagged, angular improvisation that manages to combine aggression and impressionism in a little under a minute.

There’s a change of mood with the gentler grooves of “Moondust” which finds the quartet serenely drifting in deep space with Munk’s cleanly picked, gently ringing guitar complemented by Robinson’s acoustic piano embellishments. The piece combines a Metheny like sense of melody and narrative with the anthemic qualities of rock.

Munk sings on “Prelude to Elation”, his high pitched wordless vocals giving the music an ethereal quality that is a direct follow on from “Moondust”.
“Elation” itself retains a vaguely other-worldly feel but at over seven and a half minutes progresses through a series of dynamic and stylistic changes, with the episodic writing of composers like Metheny and Hamasyan again a profound influence. Along the way we enjoy a sparkling acoustic piano solo from Robinson, something of a drum feature from Hamblett and some more wonderful guitar playing from Munk. The leader is a musician capable of coaxing a broad array of sounds out of his chosen instrument, using his effects wisely to bring an almost orchestral depth to his guitar playing. He impresses with his inventiveness and maturity throughout the album.

“Standing Still” is the second passage of collective improvisation. At a little over two and a half minutes in duration it’s longer than the first and the mood is gentler and more impressionistic with Munk’s ethereal, FX enhanced guitar at times reminiscent of Bill Frisell or even Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Floyd fans and adventurous rock listeners in general are likely to find much to enjoy in Flying Machines’  21st century fusion.

Like “Moondust” the lovely “Kilter” has a simple, even naive, melody, that is quite gorgeous. It’s lyrical beauty is well served by Munk’s crystalline guitar sound and Robinson’s acoustic piano but the real highlight here is Chaplin’s warm, liquidly melodic electric bass solo. He’s followed by Munk on guitar with a typically fluent and elegant solo that is still rich in invention.

“Fall In” ups the wattage once more and even adds a funk element to the mix as the rhythm section’s supple but propulsive grooves fuel a powerful Scofield / Stern influenced solo from Munk and a more laid back Rhodes excursion from Robinson.

“Bullet Train” is the last of the improvised episodes which develops out of a minimalist keyboard pattern to embrace rich atmospherics as it builds towards a measured climax. Such is the rapport that Flying Machines have established that the piece seems to unfold so naturally and organically that it almost sounds pre-composed.
Munk has said of these improvised episodes;
“We didn’t want to sacrifice one approach for the other. We just wanted to throw a bit more chaos into the mix, knowing that the unique sound we’ve developed over the years would bring the two approaches into a cohesive narrative”.

Amen to that as “Bullet Train” segues into the closing “Take Time” which follows a similar arc, this time over a six minute duration as it develops from gentle, simple beginnings, its beguiling melodies enhanced by a second melodic electric bass solo from Chaplin, this followed by Robinson at the keyboard. Munk’s solo sees the piece gathering momentum, inexorably building towards a soaring, anthemic climax.

“New Life” represents another impressive offering from Flying Machines. The playing is excellent throughout, especially from the leader, but the band are not afraid to keep things simple, Hamblett’s drums are functional and economical throughout, and there’s no sense of musical excess or grandstanding. Instead each of the composed pieces tells a story with Munk impressing as a writer with his strong melodic and narrative sense and his adroit command of dynamics, the latter strongly influenced by the rock world. One senses that this is a band capable of a broad appeal if they can get their music ‘out there’.

In the meantime I’m looking forward to seeing Flying Machines perform this material on the afternoon of Sunday November 25th at the Spice of Life in Soho as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival.

The band will then be touring the UK more extensively during 2019 with dates scheduled as below;

15 March - Birmingham Jazzlines
25 March - The Whiskey Jar, Manchester
29 March - Wakefield Jazz
5 April - Derby Jazz
25 April - The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
26 April - Edinburgh Jazz Bar
7 May - St Ives Jazz Club
19 September - The Spin, Oxford
23 October - The Lescar, Sheffield


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