Monday 19th AprilApril 19, 2010
There are of course a number of issues with writing reviews as well as running a label. The most obvious ones are to do with conflicts of interest, perceived or otherwise that might occur when I write about a musician that has a CD released on Cathnor. The informality of this blog allows me to get away with writing about music by Cathnor musicians easier than elsewhere, though I will usually add a caveat to the text, or at least whenever I remember to do so. There are other problems though, often related to the fact that quite often when a new CD arrives I have already heard the music some months before in demo form. So can I write nice things about a CD I possibly rejected as a Cathnor release at an earlier date? Yes of course I can, but it makes things a little awkward.
In the case of Carliol, the new album by John Butcher and Rhodri Davies on the Ftarri label, I’m faced with a new scenario again. I heard this music about a year ago, as a demo, at a time when I really was not looking for new potential releases as i had already comitted to enough to keep me going for quite a while. I really liked the music though, and listened to the demo a lot, finally deciding that I should offer to release it, even though the timing wasn’t good. It needed to be heard. Anyway when I finally did offer to do so it turned out I was a few days too late and the music had found a home at Ftarri. In truth this worked out fine as I should not really have been offering to do anything at that time, and I knew the music would be well looked after by Ftarri. Now though, a year later with the very beautifully presented CD playing on the stereo I wonder just how objective I can be about the music now I have my reviewer hat on? In theory if I felt the music was good enough to release on Cathnor then I can’t have anything bad to say about it…
Well I don’t really, its a great album by two musicians I admire a great deal, playing in a manner that I like a lot. The chances of me disliking it were always going to be pretty low. Carliol (the title comes from the address of the studio in Newcastle where most of the music was recorded) sees both musicians playing their instruments in a style somewhat removed from what we might traditionally expect. Butcher augments his sax here with his feedback set-up, plus small motors and an “embedded harp speaker” which mostly likely broadcast the sound from Davies’ electric harp set-up. There are seven pieces on the album, each with its own particular character, but it would seem that an overriding concern of the album might be to blur the boundaries between the instruments, both physically and aurally. As much a clichÃ© as this may seem, it is often quite difficult to tell who is making which sound here. Some parts are obvious, such as the occasional return to more traditional saxophone sounds that appear from Butcher on occasions, but in general I would guess that if this album was played to somebody unaware of the musicians’ previous work then they would not guess there was any kind of harp involved, and on some tracks the saxophone would be equally unidentifiable.
Rhodri Davies is credited with playing four different harps here, an unusual situation these days probably only made possible by the proximity of the recording studio to his home, which is these days In Gateshead, the opposite side of the Tyne to Newcastle. He plays pedal harp, lever harp with embedded speaker, electric harp, and also Aeolian harp though there is I think a degree of electronics involved with all of the first three, and the fourth was recorded in Argyll, Scotland probably during the Half Life sessions in 2007. This last recording is used on the seventh and final track here Distant Leazes with Butcher adding his part to the recording as a separate overdub. This last fact I didn’t actually know until I read the sleeve liners of the Ftarri release. I didn’t ever suspect over the months I had listened without this information either.
Throughout the seven pieces, both those recorded live in the studio and the final separately recorded piece there is a simplicity and clarity to the music that really allows the qualities of the musicians’ chosen sounds to be clearly heard, exposing them to the listener and leaving the interaction between the sounds to really form the basis of the music. On most of the tracks the musicians work with one sound, or at least one simple set of sounds each. Davies often uses more extended sounds, electronic sounding drones and clean, pure tones, mostly likely generated from at least semi-acoustic methods, eBows placed against strings, pegs wedged between amplified strings struck or bowed etc.. The music then feels somehow quite elemental, the exceptional recording quality adding to the precise, clear feeling of the pieces. I don’t know why, but I am reminded of the room in Tate Modern that contains a couple of Barnett Newman paintings opposite the large reflective Anish Kapoor sculpture. As you stare into the surface of the Kapoor, or listen deeply into Davies’ tones the reflection of the Newmans or the sound of Butcher’s sax seem to belong there- shimmering at times, spiky at others, working together but passing comment at the same time.
As well as the clarity and simplicity there is a real warmth to the music, often a sense of rising heat or glowing embers, such is the nature of the sounds, mostly thick resonant tones and thick breathy flutters and purrs. Despite them working in a relatively precise area of sound though there is plenty of variety and colour in the music, and no small amount of beauty. Each of the pieces has a strong, well defined character to it, each a study using different techniques but then still very much improvised in the moment.
Both of these musicians have appeared on a number of fine releases in recent years and this one is up there with the best of them. Carliol is a fine set of seven pieces that work together really well to produce one solid statement from two of the UK’s most accomplished improvisers. Miss this one at your peril. I did.