by Ian Mann
December 31, 2022
The music ebbs & flows in a very organic way & makes good use of dynamics & contrasts. It is the work of a group that has developed an almost telepathic rapport during its ten years of existence.
“Thick As Thieves”
(Efpi Records FP043)
Chris Williams – alto saxophone, Moss Freed – guitar, baritone guitar, Ruth Goller – bass, Finlay Panter – drums
Released in November 2022 “Thick As Thieves” is the fourth album release from the quartet Let Spin and a celebration of the band’s tenth anniversary.
Formed in June 2012 this ‘supergroup’ brought together musicians from the Manchester (Freed, Panter) and London (Williams, Goller) music scenes and was an immediate success. In the November of that year I witnessed a storming performance from the then newly constituted quartet at the Green Note in Camden, a double bill with violinist / vocalist Alice Zawadzki’s band that formed part of London Jazz Festival. My account of that show can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
(The Let Spin performance is the final item in the article).
Most of the material played at the Green Note found its way on to the group’s superb eponymous début album which was released on the Manchester based Efpi record label in early 2014. Review here;
The band followed this with “Letting Go”, also on Efpi, in 2015, another strong showing that consolidated their earlier success. Review here;
Their third album “Steal The Light” (2020) saw them experimenting more widely with electronics and post production techniques, with sound engineer Alex Killpartrick playing a substantial role in the creative process. Nevertheless the group’s core identity remained fully intact. Review here;
Although originally convened by Freed Let Spin has always been a highly democratic, essentially leaderless band (they describe themselves as ‘egalitarian’) with all four musician / composers contributing material to the group’s repertoire. Improvisation and collective interaction has always been part of the quartet’s MO but these elements are taken to a whole other level on “Thick As Thieves”.
The ten compositions that make up the album are presented as an unbroken segue as Let Spin approach this recording in the same manner as they do their live shows, as Moss Freed explains;
“We wanted to change the way we made music for this record, to go much more towards an improvised approach to composition, the way we perform live. Each of us would bring some musical material; snippets, grooves, sketches and some more developed pieces that we’d move between as we desired in the moment. That means some materials may not end up being used, others may be referred to and then briefly abandoned, and others still might get more focus. And all the while we improvise as a default. We recorded four long takes around forty five minutes each, live alongside individual takes of some of the more developed compositions and then edited together a version that became the album.”
Chris Williams adds;
We had a few dates in the EU in February 2020 and we chose to experiment with segues between the tunes featuring improvised solos and duos. This exploration and sense of adventure was extremely exciting and fed into the compositions within the set and subsequently into the recording of ‘Thick As Thieves’. Alongside this for the album sessions I brought an expanded pedalboard of effects. It was eye-opening how having more effects on the sax impacted the whole band, not merely in terms of sonority but how we all interacted, liberating the band from heading to familiar ground and pushing us away from assuming more conventional quartet roles when improvising. For this album we set out to capture the essence of how these two components have fed into our development. The band sound is still there, though with a strong sense of new sonic spaces being explored, both collectively and as individuals”.
It’s an approach that was honed by further post pandemic touring in 2021 and the album was recorded in the September of that year with Alex Killpartrick again forming part of the engineering team. The band cite Paul Motian, Albert Ayler, Marc Ribot, Zu and Jim Black, particularly his AlasNoAxis project, as key sources of inspiration with regard to their current sound as elements of jazz and improv combine with avant rock.
The album is presented as a single piece of music but is broken down into ten distinct sections composed by the different members of the band. When reviewing the recording I will therefore still continue to look at each track in turn, particularly as the individual sections are demarcated as such on the disc itself.
The album commences with Goller’s brief “When I Look Up”, introduced by Freed’s crystalline guitar and later featuring the soft rumble of bass and the swish of brushed drums, plus Williams’ melancholic sax melody, which feeds seamlessly into his own “Ether”, a more substantial track in terms of duration that sees the band gradually ramping up the energy and intensity with the composer’s sax wailing above the circling, polyrhythmic flow of Panter’s drums and the counter melodies of Freed’s guitar, these also acting as a kind of soundwash. Goller’s fluid electric bass is featured towards the end of this piece.
The music then segues into “Red”, credited to all four members of the group and therefore, presumably, fully improvised. Goller introduces this section with a chunky electric bass riff, around which the band improvise vigorously, with Williams adding foghorn like sax blasts that reminded me of David Jackson’s work with Van Der Graaf Generator. It’s also been speculated that the title of this section is a nod to King Crimson, and there’s certainly something of that band’s (and VDGG’s) intensity here.
That’s something that continues into Williams’ own “Waveform Guru”, a ferocious slice of skronk that recalls some of the other bands which these musicians have been involved (Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down etc.). Freed’s effects drenched guitar eventually cools things down before we segue into the jagged rhythms of Goller’s “Broken, I Told You”, the title presumably referencing the broken grooves that form the basis for the slippery guitar / sax interplay of Freed and Williams, this supplemented by the judicious use of electronica.
The tracks thus far have been fairly short, but the remaining five sections are more substantial in terms of duration, beginning with Freed’s “North Sea Swim”. Maintaining the dystopian mood previously established this section commences with Williams and Freed doubling up on the opening melodic motif before the piece shades off into more loosely structured collective interplay with Williams sometimes deploying multiphonic techniques. Freed’s guitar growl adds to the caustic, unsettling atmosphere during a series of lurching riff based passages, until Panter’s drums are left on their own, their sound treated
Sax and guitar then link up again in the manner of the opening section, before coalescing on the riff that introduces Williams’ “Mixed Messages”, which fairly barrels along, driven by a typically propulsive Goller bass groove and Panter’s powerful, rock influenced drumming. Freed’s guitar sound is heavily treated and there’s a generous sprinkling of electronic fairy-dust too. It’s like Hawkwind with jazz chops and more sophisticated rhythms.
When the energy finally dissipates the music segues into the intriguingly titled “Theremin Gong Bath”, credited to Freed and Panter. We’re still out in space but the ambience is chillier and more abstracted, the music more loosely structured with Williams and Freed tentatively sketching melodic lines around each other as Panter adds cymbal based commentary. At times the music replicates the sound of theremins and gongs, before eventually reaching even deeper into the void as electronic effects and sound processing begin to play an even greater part in this richly atmospheric music.
Credited solely to Panter “Bead” re-introduces the pulsing staccato rhythms of the earlier “Broken, I Told You” before adding a touch of guitar melody and subsequently a powerful sax solo over a driving rhythm. There’s plenty of electronic embellishment too, giving the piece an epic, wide-screen feel. The energy eventually dissipates, leaving only Goller’s bass pulse, the framework around which Freed and Panter briefly sketch melodic and rhythmic ideas.
The album concludes with Williams’ “Liminality”, which isn’t the kind of gently drifting ambient piece that its title might suggest. Instead it’s a knotty riff based item that features some powerful playing and the substantial use of electronic enhancement. Complex but insistent bass and drum grooves fuel Williams’ staccato sax riffing and foghorn blasts and Freed’s fluid, post rock guitar soloing. The band then blow up a collective storm with drummer Panter working overtime, before finally resolving things with a gentle coda that revisits the spacey atmospherics of the earlier “Theremin Gong Bath”.
Taken overall “Thick As Thieves” is a genuinely impressive piece of work and it’s an album that has won unanimous critical approval from a variety of commentators from both the jazz and rock worlds.
Although I’ve broken the individual pieces down into their component parts it’s best viewed as a unified work with some themes being revisited over the course of the album. The music ebbs and flows in a very organic way and makes good use of dynamics and contrasts and is clearly the work of a group that has developed an almost telepathic report during its ten years of existence. Powerful and atmospheric by turns this is music that is not easy to describe - but which is immensely satisfying to listen to. As I have previously observed with Let Spin this is music that has the capacity to speak to both jazz listeners and to fans of adventurous rock music.
Apparently Let Spin have been playing long, unbroken sets during their ongoing UK tour. Further dates will follow in 2023 and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the band perform live for the first time in over ten years when they appear at The Hive in Shrewsbury on 11th February. Given the substantial role that improvisation plays in the group’s music no two performances of “Thick As Thieves” are going to be exactly the same, making each gig a genuinely unique experience for performers and audiences alike.
The full list of tour dates for 2023 is as follows;
Sat 11th Feb - The Hive, Shrewsbury
Mon 13th Feb - The Bell Inn, Bath
Wed 15th Feb - Lescar, Sheffield
Thur 23rd Mar - Free Range, Canterbury
Sat 25th Mar - The Rose Hill, Brighton
More information at;
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