Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

February 09, 2022


Neatly straddling the cusp between composition and improvisation “Anthropods” is an intriguing recording that offers much for the adventurous listener to enjoy.

Mark Holub


(Discus Music DM117CD)

Mark Holub – drums, compositions, Clemens Sainitzer – cello, Irene Kepl – violin, Susanna Gartmayer – bass clarinet, Jakob Gnigler – tenor sax

The American born drummer and composer Mark Holub is a familiar figure to British audiences thanks to his leadership of the still ongoing sextet Led Bib.

Originally from New Jersey Holub came to the UK to study at Middlesex University, where he founded Led Bib with a group of fellow students in 2003. The quintet won the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award in 2005, which helped to finance their début album “Arboretum”, released later in 2005 and their Dalston Summer Stew mini festival at The Vortex in 2006, the event at which I first discovered the band. Led Bib have since released a further eight albums, with their 2009 offering, “Sensible Shoes”, receiving a Mercury Music Prize nomination.

The majority of Led Bib’s studio recordings have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann, in addition to a number of the group’s scintillating live performances. The site has also covered Holub’s collaborations with saxophonist Colin Webster, either as a duo or as a trio with the addition of former Led Bib keyboardist Toby McLaren. Tim Owen also covered a 2010 performance at The Vortex by Mustard Pie, an all star aggregation that featured the rhythm sections of Led Bib (Holub and Liran Donin) and Polar Bear (Sebastian Rochford and Tom Herbert) fronted by the saxophone of Jan Kopinski (Pinski Zoo). 

After living in London for many years Holub re-located to Vienna in 2012 and quickly forged links with local musicians, among them theremin specialist Pamelia Stickney and guitarist, sonic experimenter and studio owner Chris Janka, with whom he formed the trio Blueblut.  The group was originally assembled in 2013 for a one off festival appearance, but the rapport generated by the trio was such that they agreed to continue their experiments, documenting their music on the albums “Hurts So Gut” (2014), “Butt Butt” (2017) and  “Andenborstengurteltier”  (2020).

In November 2014 Blueblut undertook a tour of the UK in support of their début album and rather improbably played a gig in the small Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle, where Stickney has family connections. As a long term admirer of Holub’s work with Led Bib and others I decided to check them out and was delighted that I did so. Blueblut’s blend of jazz improvisation, electronica and avant rock proved to be a heady brew, a sonic cocktail further enlivened by a refreshingly irreverent slice of musical humour.

But there’s more to Holub’s Austrian musical life than just Blueblut. Since making the move to Vienna Holub has also released the excellent duo album “Taschendrache” (Slam Records, 2015), recorded with violinist Irene Kepl. Review here;

According to his website his other projects include “Falb/Holub/Satzinger a free jazz sax trio from Vienna and Perlin Noise, a contemporary classical/improv ensemble led by Sicilian composer and double bassist Alessandro Vicard.” 

He has also begun to acquire an impressive reputation as a composer for theatre and dance and also as an educator and musical theorist.

Holub’s latest band project is Anthropods, which appears to serve as a group name as well as an album title. This new quintet is very much a project of lockdown with Holub confined to Vienna and unable to travel or to play any live shows. Isolated from his collaborators in Led Bib he decided to establish a new collaborative project with other Vienna based musicians, enlisting the services of his one time duo partner Irene Kepl on violin plus Clemens Sainitzer (cello), Susanna Gartmayer (bass clarinet) and Jakob Gnigler (tenor sax). Kepl and Gartmayer both guested on the most recent Led Bib album, 2019’s “It’s Morning”, an album that represented something of a radical departure from that band’s earlier work. My review of “It’s Morning” can be found here;

The inclusion of Kepl and Gartmayer, plus the fact that “Anthropods” was recorded at the studio of Blueblut’s Christian Janka (who also carried out engineering duties) provides an element of continuity with Holub’s previous work. So, too does the unusual instrumental line up, neither Led Bib nor Blueblut boasted anything like a regular instrumental configuration.

With regards to the Anthropods line up Holub comments;
“I wanted to create something where the musicians felt free to try and determine what the band might sound like. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about where the band might go sonically. My first thought was to try and find instruments that perhaps by already being a slightly unusual grouping would make us not only sound different, but make us immediately think about where such a collection of instruments and musicians might be able to go sonically. It has been an amazing journey for myself as leader and composer, and I look forward to hearing how this band will further develop over the course of the touring.”
He continues;
“Playing music for me is really about people, and the way we communicate with each other. I wanted to find the right group of people to then continue to try and forge a sound together. Allowing each musician to bring their own special contribution, and thus allowing this band to create a sound which only THIS band could be.”

The programme on “Anthropods” features nine original compositions by Holub, some written in a groove based style reminiscent of Led Bib, others more loosely structured with the premium placed on collective creativity and improvisation. It’s not without humour, but the music is less self-consciously wacky than that of Blueblut.

The album commences with “Sea”, which emerges from a loosely structured intro featuring the increasingly frantic bowing of Kepl and Sainitzer plus the rustle and bustle of the leader’s drums. In time the reeds of Gartmayer and Gnigler hove into view, their long melody lines sailing serenely above the ferment of strings and percussion bubbling beneath.

The punchy, riff based intro to “Forest Capers” recalls Holub’s writing for Led Bib, but the piece also includes more abstract improvised interludes with the leader’s drums mediating the exchanges between strings and horns. The core riff lurches in and out of view on more than one occasion, punctuated by increasingly garrulous improvised episodes. It’s an approach that sometimes reminded me of saxophonist Cath Roberts’ band Sloth Racket, another group that likes to mix exploratory improvised passages with killer riffs.

“Messy To Me” opens with the sound of Holub’s drums and Sainitzer’s plucked cello bass lines, subsequently joined by violin and reeds. Kepl’s violin brings a European folk / classical feel to the music, contrasting effectively with the more obviously jazz approach of Gnigler’s tenor sax. Again this is music that straddles the bridge between composition and improvisation, Holub’s themes are strong enough to engage the listener but flexible enough to provide more than adequate scope for vigorous and highly creative group improvisation. The piece closes with a fascinating dialogue between Holub’s cymbals and Kepl’s violin that recalls their “Taschendrache” collaboration.

The evocative “The Bells” represents a gentler, more impressionistic side to Holub’s writing. The delicate rustle of his brushes underscores the melancholic sounds of Sainitzer’s cello and Kepl’s violin on a piece that evolves slowly over the course of its near eight minute duration. The focus here is on maintaining a mood, one of solemn introspection and melancholy beauty.

By way of contrast “One Way” is an agreeably quirky riff based piece featuring the sounds of Gartmayer’s bass clarinet and Sainitzer’s pizzicato cello bass lines. The playing is vigorous, with Holub’s drums at the heart of the music and with Kepl also deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques.

The lengthy “For Charles” (Mingus, perhaps?)  commences with the sound of droning strings and multiphonic reeds, later augmented by the bustle of the leader’s drums. The structure of the piece is very loose, allowing for improvised dialogue between the group members, with Holub and Kepl particularly prominent as the discourse becomes increasingly animated.

The aptly titled “Lunges” is cut from the same cloth as the earlier “Forest Capers” and “One Way”, mixing riff based energy with a whimsicality that draws on European folk and cabaret traditions. Even though there is an American at the helm Anthropods is emphatically a European band.

The staccato rhythms of “Pumpkin Patch”, variously generated by drums, strings and reeds, infuse the piece with an edgy urgency, with Sainitzer stepping up to deliver a brilliant solo, one of the few in the context of the album as a whole. The climax of the piece is reminiscent of the malevolent power of Led Bib in full flow, like Holst’s “Mars” on steroids. Again it’s one of the rare episodes where the music evokes comparisons with the intensity of Holub’s ‘other band’.

The final piece, “Home”, commences with Anthropods exploring classic free jazz territory, a dialogue featuring the sounds of Gnigler’s tenor sax multiphonics combining with Holub’s extended drum techniques, among them the clatter of sticks on rims and the scraping of skins and cymbals. The subsequent conversations between strings and reeds are more muted, but no less abstract, as the drums temporarily drop out, eventually re-emerging with a shimmer of cymbals. There’s a haunting quality about the playing here, one which truly finds expression in the more obviously composed closing section, which at times attains an almost anthemic grandeur.

Less intense or accessible than Led Bib and less wilfully irreverent and eclectic than Blueblut “Anthropods” is still a worthy addition to the Holub canon. Like that of his other bands the music of Anthropods is difficult to categorise, a quality enhanced by the unusual instrumental configuration and the broad range of musical influences, these ranging through jazz, rock, chamber music, folk and cabaret. As with all of Holub’s recordings there’s a sense of urgency and inquisitiveness, laced with a welcome shot of musical humour, Holub is a musician who always seems to play with a grin on his face. He’s a serious musician who doesn’t take himself or his music too seriously.

Neatly straddling the cusp between composition and improvisation “Anthropods” is an intriguing recording that offers much for the adventurous listener to enjoy. It shows Holub continuing to mature as both composer and improviser and adds new strands to his writing. The group has just completed a short series of live performances in Europe and the prospect of seeing the band in this environment is an exciting and intriguing one. Let’s hope that Holub is able to bring Anthropods to the UK, as he did with Blueblut, as Covid restrictions ease – although he will still have the horrors of Brexit to contend with. Here’s hoping.


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