Active since 2009, the Anglo-French quartet Barbacana presents an unusual line-up on its self-titled debut album: bass-less, the outfit pairs British musicians James Alsopp (tenor sax, bass clarinet) and Kit Downes (keyboards) with French players Sylvain Darrifourcq (drums) and Adrien Dennefeld (guitar, cello). The four bring to Barbacana backgrounds rooted in the traditions of avant-garde jazz based in Paris and London and by extension familiarity with the music of influential outfits such as Soft Machine and Matching Mole. Adding to the amplitude of resources drawn upon, each member brings years of experience playing in multiple contexts to the collective endeavour.
With the pieces feeling like they're pitched midway between formal composition and improv, the outfit's playing is loose without being too loose. Barbacana's spiky sound is clearly established in the opener “Animation,” where guitar and bass clarinet lines tangle aggressively alongside percolating, precision-tooled rhythms before morphing into a drum-less drift of delicate musings. Another representative example of Barbacana's approach, “Steam” proceeds exploratively with murky bass clarinet phrasings complemented by Dennefeld's reverb-heavy desert twang before springing to life with an intricate, Rhodes-driven coda that plays like some overt homage to Soft Machine. Memorable as well are “Adobes,” which sets itself apart from the other six pieces for pairing cello and bass clarinet in its front-line and for using organ to fulfill the bassist's role, and the ear-catching title track, which weds choppy lead patterns with a robo-funk drum groove. Weak by comparison is “For No Raisin,” a slow-blues piece of little consequence.
Though Alsopp introduces “Outro” with a nice solo bass clarinet turn, Barbacana is very much a democratic outfit with all members granted equal exposure. To its credit, the four generate a collective sound that is distinctive, though there are moments during the ten-minute “Migration-Big Big Shop” where Barbacana's freewheeling skronk could pass for a stripped-down version of The Lounge Lizards, especially when Alsopp and Dennefeld engage in some barbed-wire swordplay. The group also playfully expands upon its core sound by adding prepared piano and percussive objects and toys to the mix. At forty-three minutes, the recording is long enough for the group to make a case for itself without overstaying its welcome, and while hardly a landmark recording, Barbacana's release nevertheless provides a satisfying sampling of the outfit's experimental interplay.