Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

Review

by Ian Mann

March 31, 2020

/ ALBUM

"100% Yes" represents MYD’s most assured and cohesive album to date, but without sacrificing anything of their energy, verve, drive and self righteous anger.

Melt Yourself Down

“100% Yes”

(Decca Records)

Pete Wareham – saxophones, Kush Gaya – vocals, George Crowley – saxophones, Ruth Goller – electric bass, Adam Betts- drums, Zands Duggan - percussion


“100% Yes” represents the third studio album from the London based sextet Melt Yourself Down, founded in 2012 by saxophonist Pete Wareham and fronted by livewire vocalist Kush Gaya.

The group is the natural successor to such Wareham led bands as the acclaimed Acoustic Ladyland and its successor Silver Birch, plus the short lived The Final Terror.

The saxophonist has also been an important part of groups led by his long term associate the drummer and composer Seb Rochford. These include the long running, but sadly now extinct, Polar Bear, Fulborn Teversham and Rochford’s current electro-jazz trio Pulled By Magnets.

A former NYJO saxophonist Wareham has spent the last fifteen years trying to make jazz ‘dangerous’ again.  Acoustic Ladyland began life de-constructing Jimi Hendrix tunes in an acoustic jazz setting, but the band’s album “Last Chance Disco” was a blistering, electrified, all instrumental statement of intent that attracted considerable critical and public attention. Subsequent Ladyland releases maintained similar levels of intensity and found the band experimenting with vocals on the albums “Skinny Grin” (2006) and “Living With A Tiger” (2009).

Part of Wareham’s strategy was to take his music away from the usual jazz club circuit and into rock venues, playing to standing rather then seated audiences and bringing his music to people who might otherwise never hear it.

I distinctly remember an Acoustic Ladyland gig in 2005 at the now defunct Barfly venue in Cardiff. It was the year that Polar Bear were first nominated for the Mercury Music Prize (for the album “Held On The Tips of Fingers”) and public interest in both PB and Ladyland was at an all time high, particularly with the two groups sharing so many personnel – Wareham, Rochford and bassist Tom Herbert were members of both bands.
The place was absolutely rammed,  very hot and sweaty and with a true rock club ambience. The band played with a ferocious energy and intensity with Wareham blasting away on tenor sax, Rochford pummelling his drum kit and Tom Cawley delighting in the role of ‘mad scientist’ at the keyboard, with Herbert’s monstrous bass underpinning it all. A bout of spontaneous pogoing broke out in the audience, the first time I’d ever seen such a thing at was notionally a ‘jazz’ gig. It was an absolutely terrific night, one of the most exciting live events that I’ve ever attended.

I had to wait more than a decade for the next incidence of ‘jazz pogoing’. This time it was another Wareham led band, this time Melt Yourself Down, who played a late night slot at the Subtone venue as part of the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. The Subtone was another basement bar, just as hot, sweaty and just as jam packed as the Barfly had been. The MYD line up included the blistering double sax attack of Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings, the thunderous electric bass of Ruth Goller and the twin percussive attack of drummer Tom Skinner and percussionist Satin Singh. Vocalist Kush Gaya was absolutely wired, leaping from the stage to pogo with the audience and spending half his time down among the crowd. It was the perfect way to conclude a whole day of music and a total contrast to almost all that had gone before. Another scintillating live experience.

The material that was played at Cheltenham was largely sourced from MYD’ s second album, “Last Days On Earth”, which was actually released in 2016. It followed the group’s eponymous début from 2013, the group name having been taken from a particularly obscure 1986 album of the same name by the American saxophonist free jazz / no wave James Chance, a considerable influence on Wareham and who had guested on “Skinny Grin”. Chance gave Wareham his permission to use the album title as a band name.

Since the Cheltenham performance the line of the group has changed with the departure of Skinner and Hutchings, with the latter going on to considerable success leading his own groups such as Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming and Shabaka and The Ancestors, all of which have drawn much from the MYD aesthetic.

The current line up of MYD is the one listed at the top of this article, although I can’t be categorical that this is the same group that appears on the recording, with drummer Dave Smith, of Outhouse and Robert Plant fame, having passed through the band’s ranks at some point. Neither my promo CD or the accompanying press release actually lists the full line up.

The first two MYD albums were based on Nubian rhythms and included elements of jazz, rock, punk and African music. It made for a fascinating group sound, a melange of varying influences capped by Gaya’s urgent, punk like vocals. Indeed the whole band exudes a confrontational punk like attitude, although not necessarily in a nihilistic way. Fronted by a British Asian vocalist MYD likes to ask questions, particularly questions of identity, and this is a theme that runs throughout the songs on this current album. “So much has changed in the world since we started writing in 2016” explains Wareham, “we couldn’t ignore any of it and this music is borne from our feelings of extreme cultural restlessness”.

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has forced the postponement of the group’s forthcoming tour which was scheduled to have taken place during April and May 2020. Nevertheless the band have continued to keep busy with Wareham recently performing a solo livestream gig from his London residence, a show that was recorded for Clash Radio and which was made available on Facebook.
His tenor sax was augmented by electronically generated beats and samples, the latter including Gaya’s vocals, to create an absorbing show that saw the music punctuated by a question and answer session that revealed a number of interesting facts about the new album.

Thus we learned that Wareham was first inspired to form MYD when he first discovered the music of the late Egyptian musician Ali Hussan Kuban (1929 – 2001) , known as the ‘Godfather of Nubian Music’  on Spotify. This sparked his interest in all kinds of North African music and led to the creation of the MYD project.

Having said that the new MYD album is less obviously based on Nubian rhythms than its two predecessors and we heard that many of the new songs had their genesis in saxophone improvisations. The new recording also features the group experimenting with synthesisers and finds Wareham adding even more FX pedals to his sax armoury. The album title is derived from a phrase used by the Indian philosopher and author Sadhguru, whose sampled voice appears on the title track.

According to Wareham’s livestream Q & A the current line up of MYD is the one listed at the top of this article, although I can’t be categorical that this is the same group that appears on the recording, with drummer Dave Smith, of Outhouse and Robert Plant fame, having passed through the band’s ranks at some point. Neither my promo CD or the accompanying press release list the full personnel. It does however mention that the band made the album working in conjunction with the well known producers Youth and Ben Hillier, resulting in a hard hitting,  highly contemporary mix.

Unlike most ‘jazz’ acts MYD have never been afraid to release singles and have issued ten such since their formation. “100% Yes” includes no less than three of these, including opening track “Boot and Spleen”, in which Gaya’s lyrics address the legacy of British colonialism in India. The singer explains the song thus; “the conversation we’re having in this song is; ‘What’s it like to be British’? What’s that identity now in 2019? What sort of behaviours are allowed towards minorities, or from minorities towards the majority?”

According to AJ Dehany’s review of MYD’s live show at The Lexington in London in July 2019 “the single is named after the recurring ‘boot and spleen cases’ during British colonialism in India where a British man kicked (or pushed or struck) an Indian, fatally rupturing the Indian’s spleen. Spurious medical research into the Indian spleen would be employed to overturn a murder charge.”

The music is appropriately brutal, centred around Wareham’s sax hook and with Gaya’s lyrics addressing Anglo-Indian identity in the cultural melting pot of contemporary London.  Despite the weighty nature of the subject matter and the intensity of the performance this is still a ‘pop’ song, and a catchy and attention grabbing one at that. I’ve always credited Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear for bursting through the door that was partially prised open by Partisans with their 2001 “Sourpuss” album and consequently inspiring the ‘punk jazz’ movement that followed.  Bands like Led Bib and Get The Blessing and even the Neil Cowley Trio, Portico Quartet and GoGo Penguin all took something of the spirit of the ground-breaking work of Wareham and Rochford. The influence continues to this day with the Shabaka Hutchings led bands mentioned above and the rise of the Steam Down generation.

I prefer to think of MYD as playing ‘punk jazz’ - the songs on “100% Yes”, and on the earlier albums too, are essentially punk songs played by musicians with jazz chops, with a myriad of world music elements thrown in for good measure.

A mighty electric bass groove and clattering drums fuel “This Is The Squeeze”, which also introduces some of the band’s trademark North African elements. Gaya’s passionate vocals incorporate both sung and spoken passages, with the band citing Young Fathers as one of many diverse musical influences, alongside everything from the Sex Pistols to Radiohead to Kate Tempest.

Yet, another single, “Every Single Day”, continues the adrenaline rush, another song based around staccato sax riffs, walloping bass and drum grooves and this time Gaya’s reflections on the dangers and toxicity of social media platforms (“I’m a series of clicks and likes”, “we never disagree”).

Equally hooky and immediate “It Is What It Is” draws inspiration in equal parts from Iggy and the Stooges and Nigerian funk.

Synths and programmed beats come to the fore on “From The Mouth” which combines industrial strength dub influenced grooves with North African inflected saxophones and Gaya’s declaration that “all this trouble comes from the mouth”.

The scabrous “Crocodile” is about the scary Russian drug Krokodil, with the lyrics addressing the social problems that drive people to addiction and the drug cartels that nurture it. It’s heavy duty subject matter but the music, delivered with a punk like intensity, is an adrenaline rush in itself - on yet another track that has been issued as a single.

“Don’t Think Twice” is less frenetic but still packs an insidious groove and a smouldering intensity, with synths and programmed beats again a key part of the instrumentation.

Goller’s unstoppable bass grooves drive the urgent “Chop Chop”, perhaps the most obvious ‘punk’ item on the record.

The album concludes on an optimistic note with the title track, introduced by Sadhguru’s sampled voice. After this the piece is essentially an instrumental performance with Goller’s bass setting up a hypnotic groove, aided by drums and percussion. Swirling synths and wordless vocals surf the unstoppable rhythms, giving the whole piece a spacey, other worldly feeling; albeit one still imbued with the spirit of the desert, the twin saxes weaving their way in and out of the mix as the music takes on even more of a trance like quality.

Unfortunately my promo CD omits the song that is arguably the album’s most important track. “Born In The Manor” tackles the vexed subject of the Grenfell Tower fire with lyrics indicting the powers that be, those whose negligence and disregard for their fellow citizens allowed the now infamous tragedy to happen.
I’m not sure why the song has been pulled, but the signs are that it is going to be released as a single in June, possibly to coincide with the third anniversary of the fire.

It’s a shame not to be able to hear such a key work but virtually of MYD’s work on this album comes across as a protest song or other form of social comment. Gaya’s urgent, rapid fire delivery doesn’t always make it easy to pick up things lyrically, and the inclusion of the words with the album packaging would definitely have enhanced my enjoyment of the album.

Nevertheless there are some great songs here that fully stand by themselves and thanks to the intensity and precision of the performances all are viscerally exciting. It’s palpably not a jazz record but it still represents MYD’s most assured and cohesive album to date, but without sacrificing anything of their energy, verve, drive and self righteous anger. It’s definitely geared to a younger and very different audience than the usual jazz demographic and hopefully Wareham’s work with the Mercury nominated vocalist and songwriter Nadine Shah will help to broaden their fan-base even further. MYD also performed the title music for the recent BBC comedy series “King Gary”, which may also help the cause.

“100% Yes” was issued digitally on March 27th 2020 with the physical release (vinyl, CD) delayed until June due to the Covid-19 crisis. The tour scheduled for April and May has also been postponed (as mentioned previously) but many of these dates have now been re-scheduled for September and October 2020. See http://www.meltyourselfdown.com for details.

Live performance remains MYD’s natural habitat and their gigs are a riot of energy with a real punk / rock ambience and attitude. I hope to push the average age of the audience up by catching one of those dates in the autumn, especially after the band’s scheduled performance at the now cancelled 2020 Cheltenham Jazz Festival has now bitten the dust.

 

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