The Lightning Ensemble teams modular synth hero Richard Scott with guitarist David Birchall and drummer Phillip Marks. They play as a trio for one of the two live sets here and are joined by violinist Jon Rose for the other, laying down a hectic bustle of improvisation on this debut release for Manchester’s Vernacular Recordings.
There’s an itchy, feverish quality to both of the sets, the playing at times almost imbalanced in its restlessness that makes for interesting listening. For every coalescing wave of thump and squelch there’s a corresponding atomisation, the players shying away from locking into a mutually supportive group. This is particularly prevalent on the trio recording, where Scott’s modular burps and farts entwine with Marks’ percussive flurries like the tentacles of some-encrusted cephalopod in a 19th century seafaring tale, with Birchall’s rubs and plucks the yelps of freaked out mariners. Of course, half the time I can’t really distinguish what Birchall and Scott are doing, such are the acousmatic properties of their musicking. Birchall in particular has a knack for making his instrument sound like anything but a guitar, while Scott’s skills allow him to range far from the conventional modular sound palette (although fans of his recent recording on Cusp Editions will recognise the queasy barfs of his manoeuvres). Yet there’s still something of the late-night post-pub argy bargy about the jostling morass of sound that the trio creates, an exuberant to-ing and fro-ing that teeters perpetually on the edge of a strop, each party indignantly holding their corner until convinced to calm themselves and wolf down a plate of chips.
Marks does a good job of not being drowned in all this, alternating high velocity pummelling and crashing to cut through the goo with more restrained hisses and scrapes. He gets more space, strangely, on the quartet set, which has an altogether drier, almost woody feel. That’s due in part to the addition of Rose’s violin, which swoops in melancholic arcs across a landscape strewn with sonic detritus. Scott dials down the Lovecraftian mess, his occasional bursts of corroded grizzling adding to its rather desolate air. In contrast to the individualist roll and tumble of the trio, the group seems happy to let go of their established positions and gel into a edgeless cloud of unknowing, their hive mind forcing the playing into an almost reductionist liturgy, each scrape freighted with silvery meaning and each yowl holding within itself a myriad of possibilities. There’s a particularly affecting passage at about 7 minutes 30 where the descending whines of Rose’s violin join with some top-of-the-fretboard squeals from Birchall, to form a dissonant chorus, eventually falling off to let Marks back in for a thundering roll of the toms. It’s an arid, almost airless piece, and an interesting experiment for an unusual configuration. Worth checking out.