Moss Project: What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?
Two recent quality releases from the UK experimental jazz label Babel, both guitar-based projects to some degree but dramatically different otherwise. On the one hand there's Glockenspiel, a guitar-drums duo keen on atmospheric improvs, and on the other Moss Project, whose What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? impresses as a beautifully realized musical-literary-art project.
One is immediately struck by the presentation of Moss Project's second album (its first, Vision, appeared in 2009), especially when Babel spared no expense in packaging its CD within an illustrated hardcover book featuring stories and poems by award-winner British authors Naomi Alderman, Joe Dunthorpe, Colum McCann, James Miller, Lawrence Norfolk, and Hanan al-Shaykh, who each produced a text in response to a particular Moss Project album track. The multi-faceted result proves satisfying whether one experiences the writings and music as separate entities or absorbs them together. (For the record, the authors are hardly lesser-knowns. McCann, for example, is the writer responsible for the celebrated 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin and, already receiving acclaim, the just-released TransAtlantic.)
The music holds up superbly on its own terms, especially when composer-guitarist Moss Freed surrounds himself with a stellar array of UK talent: Ruth Goller (acoustic and electric bass), Alice Zawadski (vocals and violin), and Marek Dorcik (drums), plus Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax and bass clarinet) on two of the eight pieces. The presence of guitar and violin makes for a distinctive front-line, and there are moments (such as during the light-footed title track) when Zawadski's playing might remind listeners of a certain age of Jean-Luc Ponty or Jerry Goodman. The group's sound is less fusion in the strict sense but instead a style that collapses the boundaries separating jazz in its multiple incarnations—free jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk, acoustic jazz, etc.
After a gentle intro eases the listener into the recording, What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? establishes itself forcefully with the free-wheeling jazz-funk of “The Bubble,” which sees Zawadski's bright scat-styled singing merged with Freed's guitar. In navigating so breezily the tune's tricky stop-start time changes, Goller and Dorcik also show themselves to be no slouches in the rhythm section department. The mood darkens dramatically in the subsequent piece, “Anniversary,” where a dirge-like tempo affords the musicians room to ruminate, with Moss contributing Frisell-esque shadings, Hutchings soft woodwind textures, Zawadski melancholy violin expressions, and Goller and Dorcik delicate support. Near the album's end, the also-contemplative “The Angel” similarly finds the musicians indulging their lyrical sides.
While it's as breezy in spirit as many other album tracks, the closer “Postscript: Lose Ourselves” parts company from the others in featuring a lyrics-based vocal from Zawadski and in not basing itself on a literary text. Regardless, when experienced in its full measure as a literary-musical fusion, What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? is special indeed. In an introductory note, Freed himself writes, "Sometimes when music and words combine, something magical happens." Certainly such words can be easily applied to the project in its presented form.
On Dupleix, a bruising follow-up to 2007's debut album Enspiel, Glockenspiel members guitarist Adrian Dollemore and drummer Steve d'Enton kick up some serious improv dust. The album's more than just a series of unstructured pieces, however, as the duo draws upon multiple genres—metal, noise, ambient-drone, and prog-rock specifically—during the trip. The opener “Larven” captures the group's atmospheric side in a seven-minute setting heavy on texture, with Dollemore using the guitar to generate layers of washes and drifting tones and d'Enton adding subtle dashes of colour to the soundscape. The music often shimmers in a way that suggests Dollemore's using a bow to produce string-like effects that extend the Glockenspiel sound beyond what one might expect from a guitar-drums outfit.
Somewhat of an exercise in slow-burn, the title track grows in force until it assumes first the character of a smoldering post-rock jam and then doom metal freakout. The heavier side of the Glockenspiel equation comes into view during the twelve-minute track, especially when Dollemore allows raw distortion to infuse his increasingly wild playing and d'Enton modulates his attack to match his partner's. The muscular “Bellville” and “Fentanyl” are good examples of Glockenspiel's aggressive yet always musical style, with these rather more structured tracks riffing powerfully in classic prog-rock fashion (a few blistering moments in “Bellville” even recall King Crimson's “Red”).The duo covers a wide range of ground in just thirty-five minutes, and Glockenspiel's oft-awesome sound—look no further than the implosion in the second half of “Fentanyl” as proof—is well-documented on the release. As good a representation as it is, however, I'm guessing that the best way to experience Glockenspiel is live.