The Golden Age of Steam Welcome to Bat Country Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

UK jazz outfit’s second set explores newer, stranger territory.

Daniel Spicer 2012

Composer and reeds-player James Allsopp first caught the public’s ear around 2007 as leader of Fraud, a young quintet caught up in the wave of UK post-jazz units that rushed through the door blasted open by Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland a couple of years earlier.

While Fraud was all youthful fire and coruscating energy, Allsopp’s next project, The Golden Age of Steam – a trio featuring keyboard wunderkind Kit Downes and ex-Fraud drummer Tim Giles – was a more subtly experimental affair. 2010’s debut Raspberry Tongue fused spiky downtown improv with more crystalline passages influenced by avant-garde classical composers György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. But this follow-up succeeds in accessing much stranger territory.

Welcome to Bat Country finds the original trio stretched to a quintet, with the addition of electric bassist Ruth Goller (previously of Acoustic Ladyland) and trumpeter Alex Bonney, who also provides a layer of quietly disorientating samples and electronics. Bonney’s near-subliminal, almost unidentifiable details create an unnerving sonic environment that encourages close listening, like a storyteller dropping to a hoarse whisper.

Moreover, while the twin notions of "imaginary soundtracks" and "Lynchian" music have been flogged to death by now, there’s no denying the oddly evocative – and evocatively odd – atmosphere that hangs over the whole session: a skewed, David Lynch-style vision of reality gone wrong.

Allsopp’s compositions show a sly disregard for genre, and a keen sense of the potential absurdity inherent in juxtaposition. Aglow / Piano Dentist begins with a synthetic classical interlude – like a dreamy Vangelis score – before erupting into a brutal punk thrash with wild altissimo sax skronk, which in turn gives way to proggy, Hammond-led trickery.

Quiet Now mixes snatches of distant strings with a creeping, robotic rhythmic clank and plangent droplets of organ. In fact, Downes (who, alongside Alexander Hawkins, is one of very few young creative musicians actively exploring the Hammond organ) casts a weird spell over much of the album, with tones ranging from oddly muffled murmurs on Waffle Throne, to cheeky seaside Wurlitzer on Butter Dome.

Who knew nightmares could be so much fun?

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