Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019





by Ian Mann

January 27, 2015


A significant step forward, but with the band's core sound and values remaining intact.



(Naim Jazz naimcd210)

“Ornithophobia” is the third album from the British “prog jazz” trio Troyka, comprised of guitarist Chris Montague, keyboard player Kit Downes and drummer Joshua Blackmore. Troyka have acquired something of a cult following for their often complex music which dips into the well of vintage progressive rock while retaining something of a contemporary “jam band” mentality, think Soft Machine crossed with Medeski, Martin and Wood.

The new album sees the trio moving to the Naim label after releasing their eponymous 2009 début and the superior follow up “Moxxy” (2012) on Edition Records, both albums being self produced.  “Ornithophobia”  sees them deploying the services of an outside producer in the shape of Petter Eldh, himself an accomplished musician who has played bass with pianist Django Bates’ Charlie Parker inspired trio Beloved and is currently a member of saxophonist Marius Neset’s quintet. He has also worked with Downes as a member of The Enemy, a trio featuring Downes on piano plus British drummer James Maddren.

Eldh is one part of an extensive engineering/production team but his influence extends to two writing credits for the tracks “When Life Was Transient” and “Troyka Smash”  which saw him taking recordings of the band and reshaping them into fresh compositions via the use of sampling technology at his home studio. Besides his work as a bassist Eldh is beginning to develop a reputation as a sound artist and producer, particularly on the jazz and hip hop scene in his adopted home city of Berlin. His involvement has seen Troyka becoming increasingly influenced by the world of contemporary electronica and artists such as Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus and Deerfoot.

Troyka’s first two albums were essentially “live in the studio” recordings but with “Ornithophobia” they have had the luxury of taking their time, recording ideas at a studio at Eton College where Montague has a teaching job and allowing themselves the opportunity to deploy a greater degree of overdubbing and post production on the current project. With Downes providing tuned percussion in addition to his keyboard work and with Blackmore electronically manipulating the sound of his drums plus Eldh’s production input Troyka’s music is even busier than before as Downes explains “it’s got that mad eyed twitchiness, never quite settling on something”. These are qualities that have always been there but which are further emphasised by the “sci fi” elements of the current recording.   

“Ornithophobia” is a semi-conceptual affair, the title of the album deriving from Montague’s fear of birds following a distressing childhood incident involving a dead seagull, the tale of which he frequently tells at gigs as some of this material has been around for a while. The title track led to the idea of a post apocalyptic dystopian London in which the inhabitants have contracted a form of avian flu that has mutated them into human sized birds whilst simultaneously destroying their minds. Spanish artist Naiel Ibarrola’s comic book style album artwork, with the band members depicted as superheroes, expands upon the precept.
But there’s a second, more pastoral theme too with the tracks “Bamburgh” and ” Seahouses” being named after particularly beautiful locations in Montague’s native North East.

The album begins with “Arcades”, jointly written by Montague and Downes which begins in deceptively gentle fashion before lurching abruptly into one of Troyka’s trademark odd meter riffs. Thereafter there’s more of Troyka’s Canterbury scene styled progginess but this time around Blackmore’s drum grooves have a far more contemporary edge.

However this is as nothing compared to the Eldh created “Life Was Transient” which fully embraces contemporary electronica with its clever manipulation of the group’s sound, particularly Blackmore’s drums. However enough remains of the source material to ensure that the music doesn’t become de-humanised with Downes delivering some stunning work on synthesiser and with Blackmore’s treated beats a constant source of fascination, Downes describes the drummer’s playing as being “bionically enhanced”. The group are now learning to play Eldh’s adaptations in real time with the intention of re-creating something of their essence on their forthcoming UK tour. 

The Montague composed title track has been part of the the group’s live repertoire for a couple of years now. There’s an appropriate sense of nervousness and edginess about it as the music skips and scurries through a bewildering series of changes in direction. There’s some excellent interplay between Montague and Downes with the latter also doubling on tuned percussion as Eldh’s post production work expands the band’s sound. Troyka don’t deal in jazz solos as such, their tightly knit complexity is essentially a team effort, but there are arresting cameos here from Downes on organ and Montague on guitar.

Also from the pen of the guitarist “Magpies” continues with the avian theme, its chiming opening phrases underpinned by Blackmore’s chattering hip hop grooves. Later there’s a crunching math rock style riff overridden by Downes’ surging prog rock styled Hammond. Some of this stuff is heavy enough to evoke the likes of Soft Machine and King Crimson at their most malevolent.

The “comic book” style story of the sleeve design is brought to life by “Thopter”, Blackmore’s sole compositional credit on the record. Named after the ornithopter, a type of flying machine designed to look like a bird, it’s a convincingly dystopian vision that features an effective voice over in the style of a news broadcast by the London based American drummer and composer Jeff Williams. Elsewhere there are plenty of suitably neurotic sounding odd meter riffs and grooves with Downes growling Hammond often coming to the fore.

The first of Montague’s Northumberland inspired compositions represents a total departure for Troyka. It is a shimmering, atmospheric piece of ambient music reminiscent of the work of Brian Eno, it’s gentle drone uninterrupted by any kind of rhythmic impetus. At a little over three minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome and is chillingly beautiful in its depiction of Bamburgh on what must have been the stillest of moonlight nights.

It’s back to business as usual on the Downes composed “The General”, a piece that has been in the Troyka repertoire for some time and also appeared under the anagrammatic pseudonym “Elegant Her” on the Troykestra album “Live At Cheltenham Jazz Festival”. For the uninitiated Troykestra is a brilliant collaboration between the members of Troyka and the Royal Academy of Music Big Band that plays storming big band arrangements of Troyka tunes. To my ears it’s even better and more exciting than the core trio.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the version we hear on “Ornithophobia” where the piece begins with a brooding keyboard pulse and slowly mutates into a kind of twisted blues with Montague delivering a searingly brilliant guitar solo over the racing swell of Downes’ Hammond and Blackmore’s crisp and propulsive drumming. It’s a piece that skilfully brings Troyka’s many influences together from Downes’ love of early blues to rock and electronica.

Eldh’s brief “Troyka Smash” is another excursion into the realms of treated and mutated sounds and beats which features a neat contrast between Blackmore’s ultra modern beats and grooves and the retro sounds of Downes’ keyboards.

Finally we hear Montague’s “Seahouses”, less obviously “ambient” than its companion piece but much of it is still positively pastoral and tranquil by Troyka’s usual standards. There’s something of Eno in the music again but also a more obvious minimalist influence from composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Montague’s gently recurring guitar motifs are at the heart of the music with Downes providing colour and texture as Blackmore’s drums are added only towards the final stages provoking a closing change of mood.

“Ornithophobia” sees Troyka continuing to develop their sound and it is arguably their best album to date, certainly as a trio. The sound is fuller and more varied than before with Eldh exerting a considerable influence on the finished product. This album is less obviously in thrall to vintage prog rock than its predecessors and sounds far more contemporary, particularly with regard to Blackmore’s drum sounds. Montague, the group’s principal composer is less obviously dominant than on the previous recordings with Eldh’s involvement leading to more of a blurring of instrumental roles. As a result “Ornithophobia” sounds even more of a team effort, a significant step forward but with the band’s core sound and values remaining intact. However it’s quite possible that their willingness to embrace more contemporary sounds may help to expand their fanbase and broaden their audience yet further.

As individuals the members of Troyka are all fantastically busy with other projects but this latest album suggests that they still have plenty more to say as a highly collaborative trio.

Ornithophobia Tour 2015

Feb 08
The Voodoo Rooms

Feb 9   LEEDS Leeds College of Music

Feb 10 BARNSTABLE North Devon Theatres

Feb 11 MILTON KEYNES The Stables

Feb 12 LONDON Rich Mix (Launch Party)

Feb 13 CARDIFF Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Feb 20 MANCHESTER Royal Northern College of Music


Feb 27 LIVERPOOL Capstone Theatre

Feb 28 MORECAMBE Morecambe Hothouse

Mar 12 SHEFFIELD Sheffield Student’s Union

Mar 26 BELFAST Moving on Music

Apr 2   OXFORD Spin Jazz

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