Erstwhile / 001

Graham Halliwell / alto sax, percussion, Simon H Fell / double bass, Simon Vincent / drums, tone generator

Simon H Fell has rarely been far from his own rather individual cutting edge, working with improvisation but also fascinated by electronic music and the possibilities offered by the studio. When last year he released Nine Points in Ascent, a duet album of free improvisations by himself and Graham Halliwell, he launched the saxophonist as a serious voice on the UK scene (such that it is — outside London, there are too many fine players struggling with one or two venues and half a dozen like-minded peers). The album was a brilliant celebration of free improv; purely acoustic, no studio trickery, just two unique voices engaged in the kind of slippery dialogue no-one had heard bass and saxophone enter into since Parker and Guy. And now, as members of VHF, they’ve reinvented the whole thing again.

This writer must confess to having expected (rather eagerly) a similar session to last year’s model, with the addition of some drums. Well, that’s not what’s happened at all. Although Halliwell and Fell are just as recognisable as ever, the addition of Vincent has created a trio the likes of which really hasn’t been seen before. Where the chief virtue of Nine Points was its speed and agility, Extracts moves with almost geological slowness, pushing at some almost-immovable object in its path.

It would be easy to get impressionistic about this record, and talk about oppressive darkness, heaviness of atmosphere, the horror-movie sounds of clanking chains, closing doors and malevolent noises in a rather reverberating ambiance. The cover artwork, with its dimly-lit close-ups of stone textures, doesn’t help make this record seem more friendly, and nor to the track titles: “Xe”, “Ra”, “Tr” and another four symbols for chemical elements. Yes, you could certainly have a field day with it all if it weren’t for the music, which just keeps on insisting that you sit up and pay attention.

Put simply, the pieces here are of average length, episodic and mostly at a very low dynamic. The musicians concentrate on constructing compelling textures, and there are periods in each piece where only one or two of them are playing; the emphasis seems to be on musical narrative, if one may call it that, as opposed to melodic or even timbral elaboration. Fell and Halliwelll play something quite different from anything we have heard from either of them before, while Vincent favours cymbals (often rubbed or coaxed gently with soft beaters) and his electronics subtly join an ensemble sound which is already very close to electroacoustics.

That’s putting it in a nutshell, of course; not something one wants to do with something that’s quite as enigmatic as this. For a start, those seven symbols from the periodic table represent, let’s see, Xenon, Radium… “Tr”? “Tr” doesn’t appear on the periodic table, and nor do “Ct”, “Xt” or “Ts”, however plausible they look. Unless these are recent discoveries, someone is pulling someone else’s leg here. And the final track, recorded live, bursts briefly into a louder, more familiar kind of free improv before, too suddenly, it’s all over.

This is a sphynx-like piece of work which is quite unlike anything else around: seven slowly-unfolding stories without characters or settings, without descriptions or dialogue, which will have you glued to your speakers although you may not quite be able to explain why. Part of the reason is that all three are capable of fine musicianship, when it comes down to it. Very often, however, it’s not the monologue of one musician and his instrument which holds the attention but the way the group moves together, by virtue of some hidden, alien logic, from one lapidary idea to another. Richard Cochrane