by Ian Mann
March 03, 2020
The music on “Rose Golden Doorways” is a worthy addition to Seb Rochford’s body of work as a bandleader and represents a convincing successor to the glories of the Polar Bear canon.
Pulled by Magnets
“Rose Golden Doorways”
tak;til / Glitterbeat GBCD088)
Sebastian Rochford – drums, electronics
Pete Wareham – tenor sax, electronics
Neil Charles – electric bass, electronics
Any new album release featuring a band led by drummer, composer and musical visionary Sebastian Rochford is a major event.
Rochford is best known as the creative force behind the award winning Polar Bear, the jazz band that it was actually cool for thinking rock fans to like. This adventurous ensemble, with its unusual twin tenor sax front line, also featured the enigmatic electronic musician and sound artist Leafcutter John, who helped to steer the music into previously uncharted, genre defying territory. Polar Bear released six innovative albums between 2004 and 2015 and were twice nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
Polar Bear’s career has been well documented on the Jazzmann web pages and I have been fortunate enough to review the band many times, both on disc, and in live performance since I first heard them back in 2005 – an eye opening and jaw dropping experience.
Rochford is a highly creative and versatile musician who has never been satisfied with having just one project on the go. As a leader he has also performed and recorded with the short lived but wonderful quartet Fulborn Teversham and operated as a solo singer / songwriter under the alias Room of Katinas.
The indefatigable Rochford has also been a serial collaborator with others in both the jazz and rock fields. One of his most significant engagements was as the drummer with Acoustic Ladyland, the band led by his Polar Bear and Pulled by Magnets bandmate Pete Wareham. Featuring Wareham’s compositions this unit was almost as popular and influential as Polar Bear and also attracted a younger, rock influenced audience. Wareham’s current band, the punk jazz ensemble Melt Yourself Down, can arguably be seen as the natural successor to the Ladyland project.
Rochford was a founder member of Sons of Kemet, led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, and his other jazz collaborations include work with trumpeters Damon Brown and Loz Speyer, saxophonists Andy Sheppard, Ingrid Laubrock and Mark Lockheart, pianists Tim Richards, Kit Downes, Bojan Z and Dorian Ford, guitarist Jonathan Bratoeff, flautist Nicole Mitchell and vocalist Julia Biel among others. A founder member of London’s pioneering F-ire Collective Rochford has also been part of the bands Oriole (led by guitarist Jonny Phillips) and Mustard Pie ( a short lived collaboration between members of Polar Bear and Led Bib) plus the Mercury nominated Basquiat Strings.
Following his rise to prominence as the leader of Polar Bear Rochford has also enjoyed high profile collaborations with a number of well known pop and rock artists, among them Patti Smith, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Yoko Ono, Adele and former Suede vocalist Brett Anderson. Rochford has also worked on film soundtracks, notably collaborating with the director Chris Morris.
Pulled by Magnets can perhaps be seen as a natural extension of Polar Bear, but in general it’s an altogether darker beast, drawing on Rochford’s early fascination with death metal and related genres including hardcore, grind and drone. Rochford himself certainly sees it as “a natural progression”, adding “I just strive to be open, to be honest in my expression.”
The music of the new group is also informed by Indian rhythms, a consequence of Rochford’s ongoing investigation into his own British / Indian heritage and by Rochford’s reading of ancient Indian and Bedouin texts. Following his marriage to the American saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts Rochford has spent significant periods of time in the US living in the Californian desert, another experience that informs his current music making.
Pulled by Magnets again teams Rochford with his long term collaborator Pete Wareham with the drummer / leader praising the saxophonist for his levels of abandonment and commitment to the music. The selection of Neil Charles on electric bass perhaps has its roots in what seemed at the time like a one of collaboration featuring Rochford, Charles and the American flautist Nicole Mitchell at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. Charles also experimented with jazz and electronics with the trio Zed U, featuring himself, Hutchings and drummer Tom Skinner. With the same instrumental configuration it could even be argued that Zed U represented a forerunner of Pulled by Magnets.
“Rose Golden Doorways” presents nine new Rochford compositions with each piece being represented on the album packaging by its own enigmatic symbol. Rochford says of these;
“The album cover page of symbols, for me is like a visual map or representation of the different ways I perceive the album and how the different pieces relate to each other. Each piece also has its own symbol that is a visual representation of what it means to me and all the symbols have numeric meanings entwined. My intention with these was not to explain what these are but in hope that people will receive and understand them using their own intuition. The reasons I’ve made these texts and symbols is inspired from my own experience of using intuition to read and understand texts / pictures/ symbols.”
It’s all suitably cryptic and enigmatic – very Seb Rochford.
With regard to the music itself Rochford has said that he was looking for an “overwhelmingly big sound” and the album certainly achieves that. It was recorded at The Old Church in Stoke Newington, north London and the sound of the record is appropriately grandiose and gothic. The band make full and creative use of the acoustics of the recording space. Incredibly the album was recorded as a series of live takes with the musicians electronically treating and manipulating the sounds of their instruments in real time, with “no added studio woo”. In this respect alone it represents a stunning achievement.
The press release accompanying the album states;
“There’s huge scale involved here – a sense of space, of geology, of tectonic plates shifting, like a piece of sonic Land Art”.
I’d certainly concur with this and for me the music also summoned up images of slowly moving glaciers, cavernous underground chambers, swirling London fogs, dystopian cityscapes, dark midnight forests and the icy wastes of deep space.
The music of Pulled by Magnets is darker and less self consciously whimsical than that of Polar Bear, yet it still sounds like a “natural progression”, as Rochford himself has stated. The name Polar Bear was intended to reflect an animal that was frequently perceived as cute and cuddly but which could also be ferocious and very dangerous. Pulled by Magnets largely does away with the cute and cuddly façade, much of this music is uncompromisingly hard edged, although not altogether lacking in charm.
Rochford has spoken of singing the music to himself before writing it out at the piano. It would seem that much of it was written in the desert, a place that “confronts you with yourself”.
Despite the seemingly conventional instrumentation “Rose Golden Doorways” doesn’t sound like a jazz album in the conventional sense. The sounds of the instruments are heavily treated and manipulated to generate a dark and unsettling sonic landscape that extends far beyond the superficial boundaries of ‘ambient’. This is electronic music with a jazz sensibility, but nothing like an orthodox jazz or electronics record. Rochford, Wareham and Charles make an astonishingly huge sound for just three musicians and their instruments rarely sound as one might expect.
Turning now to the individual tracks as Rochford, Wareham and Charles set out their stall with the grandiose, echoing “Nowhere Nothing”, with its heavily distorted sax and electric bass complemented by the monolithic power of Rochford’s drumming. It’s an enormous sound, one that reverberates around the listeners skull and evokes images of a malevolent urban dystopia.
As its title might suggest “Slow Shrouded Isle” slows things almost to a crawl with Charles’ electric bass rumble augmented by Wareham’s brooding tenor, more recognisable as a saxophone here, and Rochford’s evocative and increasingly powerful drum and cymbal work. It still sounds suitably dystopian, evoking images of cruising in a car through deserted, fogbound streets.
“Breath That Sparks” is a brief ambient episode with Rochford’s eerie cymbal scrapes and shimmers making it sound as if it were recorded deep below ground, perhaps in the vast underground water tank in Washington State in which the American composer and multi-instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff recorded his album “Cistern”.
“Breath That Sparks” segues almost immediately into “Those Among Us”, a piece that the press release describes as being “frankly terrifying”. It certainly features Pulled by Magnets at their most extreme, as they deliver towering, dizzying edifices of sound in its opening salvo. Light relief comes in the form of a dubby bass pulse that sounds as if it could have been generated by Oren Marshall on tuba. Wareham’s sax stalks balefully around the increasingly fractured stop-start rhythms generated by Charles and Rochford, before metamorphosing into sounds resembling human cries or shrieks as the music gathers a fearsome momentum and intensity, the rhythms constantly unfolding and mutating.
Heavily distorted electric bass introduces “The Immortal Fire”, a piece inspired by the rhythms of Indian raag, particularly with regard to timing and pacing. Yet, with this being the enigma that is Seb Rochford there are no audible drums or percussion on a track that appears to be pretty much a solo performance by Charles, the sounds that he generates as rich and evocative as any on the album.
The title of “Cold Regime People Die” may or may not be a comment on current British politics. Musically speaking it’s an immensely powerful piece paced by Rochford’s powerful, implacable drumming and featuring towering, eerie edifices of sound, with Wareham’s sax seeming to emulate the gothic sounds of a church organ at times.
“Within” is an atmospheric piece featuring Wareham deploying live looping techniques on his saxophone, with gentle flute like sounds juxtaposed with deep, honking bass sonorities. Like the earlier tracks “Breath That Sparks” and “The Immortal Fire” this appears to be primarily a solo performance.
At a little under eight minutes in length “The Moon of Oduglin” is the album’s lengthiest composition, a richly evocative piece that glowers atmospherically and evokes a vision of gothic grandeur and religiosity alongside an unsettling aura of approaching Armageddon. As others have observed Rochford plays his kit almost like a classical percussionist, his dramatic contributions complemented by the baleful wail of Wareham’s treated sax and the rumble of electric bass. Quieter, spookier moments offer an element of dynamic contrast and render the track even more eerie, frightening and dramatic.
The closing “Invite Them In” continues the mood and was even issued as a single. A frankly scary instrumental this would constitute the most surprising hit of all time, but I suspect that its real function was as a trailer for the album. Thunderous percussion and gargantuan echoed sax continue to evoke visions of an apocalypse that never quite arrives as the piece resolves itself in a subterranean rumble that eventually simulates the sound of church organ, and finally the tolling of bells.
The music on “Rose Golden Doorways” is a worthy addition to Seb Rochford’s body of work as a bandleader and represents a convincing successor to the glories of the Polar Bear canon. It’s darker in tone than most of Polar Bear’s output but I would like to think that listeners who were adventurous enough to follow the Bear will still find themselves attracted, rather than repelled, by the Magnets.
Rochford has maintained a fairly low profile in recent years following the final demise of Polar Bear. Pulled by Magnets appeared at the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival with a show at St. John’s Church in Bethnal Green but their live appearances so far have been fairly limited. The band’s recent live session on BBC Radio 6 should help to raise their profile and having very much enjoyed listening to this début album I’m now looking forward to seeing their performance at the forthcoming Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
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