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Avant jazz double : Black Host and Diamond Terrifier

.Image of TR017 DIamond Terrifier - The Subtle Body Wears A Shadow LP/CD

Jazz music often catches a bad rap: young people these days seem to view it either as music that belongs to a bygone era, to their parents’ or grandparents’ generations, or as music for intellectuals, to be played only through headphones in library research rooms or as an accompaniment to some pompous college professor’s weekend dinner party. Well listen up dummies: you need to pay attention to the smart people and respect your elders, because jazz rocks. Not only was it around for half a century before rock & roll came along, it also paved the way for pretty much everything you now know as music; it’s biggest stars were more complex characters with dirtier, darker secrets than any of your dead-at-27 so-called heroes, and you’ll find more moments of musical innovation in most fifty year-old jazz records than you will in anything released this year. All we are saying, then, is “give jazz a chance”, and what better place to start than with Black Host‘s debut LP Life In The Sugar Candle Mines, out May 28 via Northern Spy Records, one of the finest jazz-rock fusion albums in recent memory and a good way for the uninitiated to dip a toe into some of the genre’s choppier waters. Led by drummer and sound designer Gerald Cleaver, the quintet – serial collaborators, award winners and renowned improvisers to a man – veer expertly from free-jazz skronk to blissful psychedelia to big-band swing to musique concrete to avant-rock, often within the space of a single track, as demonstrated on 17-minute opener “Hover”; over waves of seismic percussion and Pascal Niggenkemper’s bedrock bass, veteran pianist Cooper-Moore and Brandon Seabrook – named the best guitarist in NYC by The Village Voice last year – trade alternately melodic and chaotic solos while saxophonist Darius Jones breathes the kind of beautiful fire that will have those in the know reaching for the Ornette Coleman and Jan Garbarek comparisons. With all five players sharing equal billing, there is plenty of virtuosic musicianship to admire. Cooper-Moore in particular flips between styles at the drop of a hat to follow wherever Cleaver’s shape-shifting shuffle leads him, scattering broken scales over the spazzed-out (and aptly named) “Ayler Children” or rolling out luxurious rhapsodies on elegant closer “May Be Home”; Seabrook, meanwhile, is magnetic, wrangling scratchy, metallic Ribot riffs from his guitar and sounding for all the world like the in-bred banjo-picker from Deliverance after a heavy Swordfishtrombones session. The group are at their best, however, in full-on mode, jostling for attention like a litter of boisterous puppies on the FX-laden freeform jam “Amsterdam/ Frames” or flexing their prog muscles on the wonderfully knotty “Test-Sunday” (below); fine examples of a band acutely aware of their place in jazz’s timeline, paying respectful homage to their forefathers whilst marching fearlessly towards the horizon to the beat of their own drum.

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Though not blood relations, Black Host and Brooklyn’s Diamond Terrifier are very much part of the same extended family. DT is the solo alias of Zs saxophonist and bandleader Sam Hillmer, himself a Northern Spy alumnus, and if Black Host represent a modern take on jazz’s past, then Hillmer offers a tantalising glimpse into its future. Having started out two years back as a fun exercise in live saxophone looping, the DT sound really started to take shape with last year’s Kill The Self That Wants To Kill Yourself, produced and edited by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor whose Terrible Records imprint will release Hillmer’s latest set The Subtle Body Wears A Shadow on May 28. With that release, Hillmer and Taylor learned how to corral long saxophone drones (multi-tracked, pitch-shifted and fed through various pedals and processors), electronics and primitive drum machines into short compositions that straddled the grey area between meditative ambience and punk’s agressive energy whilst also tipping a knowing wink to contemporary experimental dance forms, a process that clearly influenced Zs’ Grain; The Subtle Body expands even further on that blueprint with a four-part, thirty minute suite that finds those disparate – and often apparently improvised – elements woven into something with a more cohesive narrative structure. Of course, as with Zs (and, indeed, much of the music that exists within the same orbit), that narrative is very much open to interpretation, and mine – whilst probably wildy off-message – revolves around some sort of near-future dystopian man-machine cyber-fable. Opening with a slow, tidal sax refrain, first movement “Shrine Flu” ushers in a sense of uneasy calm, Hillmer’s fluttering notes hypnotising whilst in the background a rising electronic hum subconsciously warns that all is not well; a disembodied, computerised voice forecasting its own death then introduces “Two Witnesses”, with bells and chimes giving way to five minutes of uninterrupted free-jazz skronk before a sputtering drum machine kicks in and a lonely synth starts picking out alien techno motifs. Right at the end the sax drops away completely, leaving a skeletal version of a footwork track pumping away for a few moments, the robot’s heart slowly grinding to a halt. Despite it’s twinkling, Badalamenti-esque intro, “Triple Gem” (below) soon reveals itself as the android’s death rattle, Hillmer blasting away with short, sharp bursts whilst chugging industrial rhythms and distorted synths lead into a two minute ambient drift and the robot again, pleading: “Who can save me, who can protect me from this horror, this frighful dread.” Finally the title track, a sad but uplifting farewell to our hero/ villain; a lonesome refrain, splintering into synthesized shards at the end of each cycle, one last robotic voiceover as the camera pans away from the scrapyard graveside, repeated over and over: “Humans long to free themselves from misery, but misery itself they follow and pursue; they long for joy, but in ignorance they destroy it, like they would a hated enemy”. Regardless of how you choose to read it, it’s a deeply moving piece, and one that challenges our preconceptions of “process” and “technique” in music making, which is probably exactly what Hillmer was shooting for. It’s a long way removed from Miles Davis’ early tape-splicing studio experiments, but it’s just as daring and further proof that whilst jazz may be the great grandfather of popular music, there’s life in the old dog yet.

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About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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