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Sloth Racket

A Glorious Monster


by Ian Mann

June 22, 2018


An impressive document in its own right, full of an exploratory, vibrant, creative energy and capturing Sloth Racket at their inimitable best.

Sloth Racket

“A Glorious Monster”

(Luminous Records LU010)

“A Glorious Monster” is the third studio album on the Luminous label from the quintet Sloth Racket, a group of musicians drawn from the London, Manchester and Leeds jazz scenes and led by the baritone saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts. The band also includes Sam Andreae( alto sax), Seth Bennett (double bass) and brothers Anton Hunter (guitar) and Johnny Hunter (drums).

Sloth Racket first performed at the 2015 Gateshead International jazz Festival as the result of a commission by Jazz North East.  They established an immediate rapport and the success of that event convinced Roberts that Sloth Racket should become a semi-regular working band. Further festival appearances plus a UK tour followed and a début album, “Triptych”, was released to considerable critical acclaim in 2016. This was followed in 2017 by the appropriately named “Shapeshifters” which saw the band continuing to explore the interface where composed and improvised music meets.

Sloth Racket’s music typically features the group improvising around Roberts’ compositions. These are intentionally sparse and rudimentary, often presented as graphic scores, and essentially represent ideas or basic frameworks around which the band can structure their improvisations. Roberts’ pieces habitually change shape in the course of the group’s live performances, a quality that makes the title of their second album particularly apposite. It is demonstrated further by the group’s live recording “See The Looks On The Faces”, a cassette only release on the Tombed Visions label, which features radically different versions of pieces from the band’s first two studio albums captured at live shows in Norwich and Cambridge. It even includes two versions of the piece “Edges” (from “Shapeshifters”) which differ substantially from each other as if to illustrate the point.

The personnel of Sloth Racket also form the core of Favourite Animals, a scaled up version of the original band with the following musicians added to the line up;
Julie Kjaer – bass clarinet, flute
Tom Ward – bass clarinet, flute
Dee Byrne – alto sax
Graham South – trumpet
Tullis Rennie – trombone
The resultant ten piece toured the UK as part of a double bill with Anton Hunter’s own large ensemble Article XI in December 2017 with the Birmingham performance reviewed here;
Both ensembles include shared personnel and both released eponymous début albums to coincide with the tour.

A highly active presence on the London jazz and improvised music scene Roberts’ other projects have included the septet Quadraceratops and the quartet Word of Moth plus the improvising duo Ripsaw Catfish, another collaboration with guitarist Anton Hunter.  Elsewhere Roberts performs with the Madwort Saxophone Quartet, led by saxophonist Tom Ward, the eight piece improvising saxophone ensemble Saxoctopus and in a duo with trombonist Tullis Rennie, plus numerous other one off and ad hoc collaborations. 

Together with alto saxophonist Dee Byrne Roberts is the co-founder of Lume, a musician led organisation originally devoted to giving improvising musicians a platform on the London music scene. It has since expanded to incorporate the Luminous record label and has facilitated two successful Lume Festivals in 2016 and 2017.

“A Glorious Monster” was recorded in November 2017 at Blueprint Studios in Salford with Alex Bonney engineering. At the time the band were in the middle of a tour in support of the “See The Looks On The Faces” release and had given some of the “Glorious Monster” material a first public outing at a gig at The Peer Hat in Manchester the previous evening.

It had originally been intended that the new album should be uplifting and optimistic but the material that Roberts came up with was pretty much the opposite, in her own words “dark, heavy and/or downtempo”. Following on from the Peer Hat show the single day session at Blueprint found the band involved in “a process of orientation, deconstruction and communal improvisation around just how this music was going to sound”. The results are as absorbing and intriguing as anything Sloth Racket have come up with, even though the music could hardly be described as an ‘easy listen’.

Opener “Animal Uprising”, the title perhaps referencing the larger version of Sloth Racket, is taut and angular, commencing with a fanfare from the twin saxes plus Anton Hunter’s guitar. Bass and drums subsequently enter and the music gathers an edgy momentum with Andreae’s alto worrying and whinnying away above the rhythmic and textural backdrop created by his colleagues. He subsequently solos at length, his urgent probing complemented by busy drums and bass as the music temporarily goes into saxophone trio mode. That sense of fractious, urgent energy persists in a series of edgy, abrasive exchanges between the members of the group with saxes, guitar and drums all involved. Later still the music acquires an almost anthemic quality as Roberts unleashes one of her most powerful riffs as the band members coalesce on a stirring, written theme. It’s an impressive beginning featuring Sloth Racket’s trademark blurring of the lines between composition and improvisation allied to some excellent playing. Despite its improvisatory nature there’s a steely sense of purpose about Sloth Racket’s music.

The ethereal shimmers of Johnny Hunter’s cymbals introduce the title track and his drum kit remains at the heart of the quintet’s introductory explorations. The piece is more obviously improvised and freely structured than the opener with pecked saxes and cat scratch guitar both distinctive components, their ruminations initially tentative and introspective before becoming more agitated and fractious. The two saxes then combine to set up the juggernaut of a riff that threatens to resolve the piece before eventually dissipating to make way for a more reflective finale.

“The Gazer” commences with a passage of free improvisation featuring bowed bass, pecked saxes and the rustle of drums and percussion. Eventually a modicum of structure emerges as the twin saxes intertwine, shadowed by bass and drums. Bennett’s bass becomes the fulcrum around which the shadowy improvisations of his colleagues take place with the interplay between Roberts and Andreae a constant source of fascination, as is Anton Hunter’s spidery guitar. The piece resolves itself with a delicate, unexpectedly beautiful coda featuring Andreae’s alto sax.

The final cut, “Octopus”, begins with a passage of free improvisation centred around the pecking and rasping of the saxes, Anton Hunter’s scratchy guitar and the patter of Johnny Hunter’s drums as extended techniques abound. Gradually a semblance of order emerges but the music remains fiercely interactive. Eventually the twin saxes coalesce with Hunter’s guitar to generate another gargantuan riff which in turn provokes a powerful baritone solo from Roberts as the music takes on an almost punk like intensity, but punk still very much rooted in the jazz avant garde.

“A Glorious Monster” represents another impressive statement from Roberts and Sloth Racket. Their music won’t appeal to everybody but I, for one, continue to find the balance that they strike between the composed and the improvised a constant source of fascination. Their music is constantly evolving, rarely settling in one place for long and the transitions between the free and the structured are skilfully and seamlessly handled. With its deployment of written riffs and themes it’s a more accessible album than “Shapeshifters” and seems closer in spirit to the début, “Triptych”.

No doubt these pieces will have mutated again in live performance but “A Glorious Monster” is an impressive document in its own right, full of an exploratory, vibrant, creative energy and capturing Sloth Racket at their inimitable best.

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