Blood, Sweat and Ears (Fanfare free download); Muscle atrophy in a squirrel’s left leg (Fanfare CDr and download); Shepherds of Cats with special appearance of Dariusz Błaszczak and Panelak (Tombed Visions cassette and download)
This Anglo-Polish trio – Aleksander Olszewski on percussion, Adam Webster on cello and Jan Fanfare on keys – have an excellent, rather absurdist take on improvised music. It’s not that they subvert or reject the conventions of European free improv – instead, working like sorcerers from their hideout in Wroclaw, western Poland, they chuck it all into a big cauldron and mix it up with bloodied chunks of rock posturing, the odd dab of funk squelch and a whole suitcase full of cosmic whimsy, to create an idiosyncratic sonic casserole.
Somehow, they manage to keep it together, creating a diverse sound that harnesses a music school’s worth of instruments into constantly morphing sonic inventions. That their approach is so successful is tribute to the openness of their attitude and ability of the trio lock into each other’s biorhythmic vibes, without descending into sub-Zappa druggy collage hell.
The trio is, if I’m honest, a fairly new proposition for me, having been brought to my attention by Pascal Ansell, otherwise known as arch noise japester Panelak (more of him later), who has worked with them on several of their recent releases.
Occasionally – as on their fine Tombed Visions tape (more of which later) – Shepherds of Cats recall some of AMM’s best work, radio fuzz merging with instrumental scrapes and fragments of ghostly piano melody wafting through. But, in general, the barely repressed air of hysteria that characterises these pieces gives them a flavour all of their own.
Blood, Shed and Ears is, I think, its most recent recording. It’s available free from Fanfare, the website set up by keyboardist Jan Fanfare as a platform for musical projects. Characteristically long form, it’s divided into three parts, with Blood (the first part) and Sweat (the second) clocking in at 35 minutes and the final section, Ears, lasting a relatively modest 16 minutes.
It starts innocuously enough, the opening minutes of Blood exploring typical free improv scrabbles.
Then, everything changes. A low drone buoys aloft a scuttling groove, whose mesmeric rhythmic grid seems to open up a portal to some other place, allowing the spirit voices of the dead to rush through and fill the room with falsetto whines and animalistic grunts and barks. These voices, whether channelled through the physical bodies of the trio or just vibrating in the aether, provide an uncanny counterpoint to the band’s minimalistic, percussive scrunches.
In Shed, the playing becomes more aggressive, the chants more ritualistic, although whether this is to summon those same spirits back or keep at the bay is unclear. There are phasey synclavier stabs, as if Stevie Wonder was in the room, practising some primal return to the womb musical therapy. The final third turns into a rather elegant junkyard jam, with Adam Webster’s bowed cello arcing across a dumpy tin can beat and a swirly eyed keyboard line wanders around underneath.
By the time Ears rolls around, things are getting downright pretty, with some cute playing that recalls the trippier bits of Heliocentric Worlds-era Sun Ra. Soon the ghosts are back in force with a near hysterical chorus bellowing out in polyglot glory. Most of the garbles and growls are wordless, or in some indecipherable tongue, but at around 12 minutes it’s possible to discern an obsessive monologue, ‘I want an answer… I want an answer… I won’t ask any more questions… I’ve got this one question… I’ll get the answer… I’ve been thinking…” . This pathetic stream of verbiage is almost more disturbing than the revenant screeches that preceded it, a psychic echo of an unresolved trauma. Great stuff.
Released on the band’s own Fanfare label, the superb Muscle atrophy in a squirrel’s left leg sees the trio joined by Panelak for a 50-minute prog-free-improv-drone odyssey into apocalyptic lunacy, a sonic version of some fantastical mediaeval journey deep into halls of the mountain king.
Ansell is on restrained form here, confining himself to textural drifts of field recording and electronics, which suits the atmospheric vibe of the recording very well.
Presented as a single, long track, recorded live in the studio, it actually seems comprised of several shorter sections, blocks of music almost, that despite being disparate in technique and mood flow together as naturally as milestones on a seemingly endless path.
If Muscle atrophy in a squirrel’s left leg is a journey, however, it is an enigmatic one. We’re as unsure of the reliability – not to mention the identity – of our guide as we are of the destination. Is this a spiritual trek, with these different musical sections acting as Stations of the Cross for the weary pilgrim? A Homeric odyssey through perils to arrive safely home, or a mock-heroic inversion with sex, nationalism and alcohol as our wayposts?
In any case, this is an expedition crisscrossed with strange rumblings, mysterious echoes and hints of nearby peril. Sounds drift into earshot, as if coming from down a long, corridor, or appear in earshot dramatically, like an ambush. The materiél of the improvisation isn’t that different to that of Blood, Sweat and Ears – jutting cello interventions, clattering percussion, space-funk keys – but here it is swathed in a close, dry miasma. The air of the cave. Or the tomb.
There are voices again, but this time they’re the plangent reverberations of unknown rituals. Late on, we encounter a solitary voice, front and centre, but it’s the careless warblings of the craftsperson, or a sentry, immersed in their work. Earlier we’d encountered a thunderous, beating rhythm starts up, the kind that accompanies a procession, although thankfully it’s one whose path we don’t cross. In all, it’s a claustrophobic work, with a feverish and spooky intensity. Are we there yet?
Panelak crops up again on the trio’s mighty 80-minute recording for Tombed Visions, functionally titled Shepherds of Cats with special appearance of Dariusz Błaszczak and Panelak. Here Ansell hands some electronic gunk, while additional guest Blaszczak cajoles various household implements into noisemaking life.
Although there are similarities between the other two works under discussion here, there is a warmth to this tape that’s also in direct contrast to them. The strange combination of polyrhythmic drum patter, harmonica bursts, cello swipes, mangled vocal gurgles and repetitive piano chords that starts side A has a strange grooviness, kind of like Bitches Brew teleported in from another part of the multiverse. That piano plinks away for the first 10 minutes or so, eventually picking out a melancholy, almost lyrical figure whose prettiness isn’t diminished by the strangled vocal burbles accompanying it.
After that, the pieces move through a series of what the release notes describe as ‘sonic scenes’, the invention and creativity of which help lighten the durational burden for the listener. Jan Fanfare’s piano makes another appearance at around 24 minutes, marking out limpid motif that’s gorgeous in its fragility, before it turns its frown upside down and embarks on a sprightly jig around the room, chased by a quirky cello pizzicato and rattle of percussion.
As the almost two hours of this tape plays out, it’s interesting to note how Blaszczak and Ansell thicken out the core trio’s sound, without over-egging the pudding. The start of side B is a god example, its dubby wall of echo adding a completely different texture from what’s gone before and acting as a ghostly break between the two sides. Much later on, a gristly fuzz layer performs a similar function, providing a pleasing bed of glitch for a lurching beat from Olszewski. In between there are more delights, including a scrawny ocarina-like burst of whistle, and a snatch of marimba and squelch duet just past the halfway mark.
With its extended duration, mesmerising grooves and diversity of palette, Shepherds of Cats with special appearance of Dariusz Błaszczak and Panelak, shows Shepherds of Cats at their most inventive and encompassing. Opening up a portal into the trio’s own peculiar universe, it also extends a furry paw in invitation for all intrepid sonic travellers. Step out of the dog days and join them on their feline trip.