by Ian Mann
September 19, 2019
An album that is simultaneously the quintet’s most experimental and most cohesive.
Luminous Records LU011)
Cath Roberts – baritone saxophone, Sam Andreae – alto saxophone, Anton Hunter – guitar, Seth Bennett- double bass, Johnny Hunter - drums
“Dismantle Yourself” is the fourth studio album from Sloth Racket, the quintet led by saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts. It follows in the wake of “Triptych” (2016), “Shapeshifters” (2017) and “A Glorious Monster” (2018), all released on the Luminous record label and all reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. There has also been one live recording, “See The Looks On The Faces” (2017), a cassette only release on the Tombed Visions imprint.
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.
Featuring a mix of musicians from the London, Manchester and Leeds jazz scenes Sloth Racket was founded in 2015 when Roberts was commissioned by Jazz North East to present a new project at Gateshead International Festival. The new group established an immediate rapport and the success of that event convinced Roberts that Sloth Racket should become a semi-regular working band and their output since that time has been both impressive and prolific.
Sloth Racket operate at the interface where composed and improvised music meet, playing Roberts’ compositions exclusively. 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.
“Dismantle Yourself” sees the quintet continuing to hone their approach. It was recorded in early February 2019 at The Chairworks studio in Castleford, Yorkshire. After making three studio albums in single day sessions Roberts decided to give her bandmates more time to work on the music in the more relaxed setting of a residential studio.
Another change saw Roberts presenting her new compositions to the band unseen, the previous studio recordings had been documented at the end of tours when the musicians were already familiar with the material. This change of approach was designed to encourage greater experimentation, a process that the extra studio time was intended to encourage, as Roberts explains;
“With more time for experimentation the focus of the recording was the exploration and development of the new material, collectively improvising the composed starting points into finished pieces. It was a glimpse into the world of multi-day recordings and a fresh approach for the group, who now look forward to taking the new music on the road and completely de-constructing anything that may have been settled upon back in that cosy winter studio”.
The album is accompanied by a twenty page risograph-printed ‘zine’ containing words and graphics by Roberts and printed on recycled paper by the Footprint Workers Co-Operative in Leeds. It offers a valuable insight into the creative processes of Roberts, herself a talented artist and printmaker who has always designed and created her own album packages. The artwork for “Dismantle Yourself” also features a recycled cardboard case with hand-printed lino-cut artwork, available in five different ink colours.
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.
The new album features five lengthy pieces commencing with “Proximity Warning”, at a little over eight minutes the shortest track on the recording. It emerges from a collision of harsh, acerbic saxes and metallic guitar, before Bennett and Johnny Hunter eventually join the proceedings to create a fluid groove around which the saxophonists continue to improvise in garrulous fashion. The drummer is a particularly busy presence and becomes embroiled in a feisty dialogue with the horns, before eventually dropping out once more as the reeds and Anton Hunter resume their animated conversation, the saxes buzzing like a nest of angry wasps. Like all Sloth Racket’s output the music is constantly evolving and mutating, “shapeshifting” indeed. “Proximity Warning” represents a challenging, but thrilling introduction to the quintet’s latest opus, music that is uncompromising but fiercely intelligent.
The title of “We Decide What Comes Next” could almost be the group’s manifesto. It’s a piece that initially reveals a gentler side to Sloth Racket, building up from the bottom with Bennett’s bass the improvisational exchanges are less frenetic, conversational rather then confrontational. Anton Hunter delivers spidery, pointillist guitar, brother Johnny’s cymbal ticks and mallet rumbles depict him in colourist mode, while the saxophonists play long, crepescular melody lines. There are more abstract moments too, helping to ensure that the music retains Sloth Racket’s trademark edge, the sound becoming more urgent and fidgety as the piece progresses through a series of distinct episodes, ending with a series of squalling saxophone exchanges fuelled by Johnny Hunter’s fractured drum grooves.
Roberts and Sloth Racket have always harboured a fondness for a good chunky riff and title track “Dismantle Yourself” comes roaring out of the blocks with a suitably gargantuan example, featuring turbo charged guitar, skronking baritone sax and sledgehammer drums. But this is Sloth Racket, just as quickly the guitar and drums drop out for a more refined passage featuring an almost courtly saxophone dialogue. But as soon as you’ve adjusted to that the killer riff kicks in once more, before fragmenting as the band embark on a series of more obviously improvised exchanges featuring whinnying saxes, scuzzy guitar and skittering drums. The final passage of a typically multi-faceted piece is intensely atmospheric with Anton’s looped and layered guitar serving as a textural device, providing the backwash for the gentle piping of the saxophones, Bennett’s grainy bowed bass and Johnny Hunter’s filigree drum and cymbal embellishments. It’s a piece that goes through several distinct phases and finds itself in a totally different position from where it started out. It’s to Sloth Racket’s credit that these stylistic shifts always seem to occur naturally and organically, the part composed, part improvised narrative always seeming to make perfect sense whatever the dynamic and stylistic extremes.
“Butterfly Takes The Train” draws its inspiration from a poem (of sorts) in the accompanying zine. The music begins with the sounds of pecked saxes and spider scratch guitar in an absorbing conversation. The addition of bass and drums increases the urgency with the leader’s muscular baritone sax coming to the fore to solo forcefully above busily roiling drums.
Andreae’s alto subsequently joins in to create a brief but spiky dialogue between the reeds, with Anton’s guitar also becoming involved as the opening discussion is renewed. The return of bass and drums sees the group coalescing once more, albeit loosely, as the Hunter brothers and Bennett fabricate an impressive wall of sound above which the saxes whinny and wail.
Finally we hear “Terraforming”, a near fourteen minute epic that constitutes the album’s lengthiest piece. The composed opening section is paced and powered by Bennett’s meaty, grounding bass motif, above which the reeds combine to powerful effect, double horns combining with clangorous guitar. It’s the kind of riffery that distinguished parts of “Triptych” ans “A Glorious Monster” and which might make fans of Van Der Graaf or King Crimson sit up and take notice. Eventually the music shades off into more loosely structured, obviously improvised territory with the kind of stimulating, increasingly garrulous, collective musical exchanges that have become something of a Sloth Racket hallmark. It’s powerful stuff, not for the faint hearted, but a thrilling musical white knuckle ride for those brave enough to take the trip.
“Dismantle Yourself” shows Sloth Racket to be still developing as a band. The extra studio time has been used to good effect on an album that is simultaneously the quintet’s most experimental and most cohesive.
I continue to find the balance that Sloth Racket 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. There’s also a punk like edginess and vitality about their music that makes for challenging but highly rewarding listening.
The band are currently on tour in the UK with two dates remaining as follows;
19/09/2019 – Norwich, Camouflage
20/09/2019 – Cambridge, Listen!
More at http://www.slothracket.co.uk
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