Noble / Williams / Marshall

Flathead Reunion
Ping Pong Productions / PPCD001

Steve Noble / drums, turntables, Davey Williams / guitar, Oren Marshall / electric tuba

These three have been chucking some of this material around for a couple of years now, and they’ve managed to keep an edge on it. Superficially a fusion of out-rock and free improv, their music transcends such categorising by including Marshall’s no-wavey electro-tuba and Noble’s turntables. These latter conjure the familiar spirits — illbient, abstraction, collage and, inevitably, faint shades of Hip Hop — and go a step further, too. At times, the trio indulge in frenzied, Last Exit-styled wig-outs over Noble’s rock school chops, at others they drift on weird cyber-ambiences, the bastard children of the birdsong and running water of New Age meditation tapes.

On more than one occasion here, Williams fluffs runs which an above-average player should expect to coast through. His conception, however, is not entirely based around the standard single-note approach, and he sounds best when he stays out of that particular arena. Blending with Noble’s turntables is Williams’ most comfortable role, the two producing a nicely organic texture on the less gung-ho tracks.

When he plays more soloistically, problems of tone and phrasing emerge which a more conventionally accomplished player would have overcome. These are problems, not distortions undertaken with musical intent, and although they arise from an admirable risk-taking attitude which works well in a live context, they rather stand out on record. Poor technique marrs performances like “Hog Stomp” and the title track, and particularly obstructs some nice ideas in “All Too Soon”. The disdain in which traditional standards of technical ability are held in certain quarters of the improv community (all that sniffing about “legitimate technique”) could do with dusting off and re-examining. These more eclectic times than the 1970s when that particular idea was thought up.

“All Too Soon” features a literally screaming solo from Oren Marshall, whose amplified and heavily processed tuba defines the record’s sound without ever dominating it. To say that he is one of the best British free-improvising tuba players might sound like trying to pick the best Mormon punk band, but the instrument has had something of a revival, both in the big-band projects of the 1980s and in smaller groupings where its agility can almost match the string bass and its presence is evocative of pre-swing jazz. Braxton’s compositions for the instrument, including Five Tubas, explicitly make this connection. Marshall stays off the cod-New Orleans sounds here, of course, often playing the effects more than the tuba to produce a form of live electronics.

The trio create some involving soundscapes, often ambient in intention, even if their sense of fun too easily coaxes Noble (a fine drummer, and stalwart of the scene) into a gratuitous groove. Some tracks here — often the short ones, some of which come in at under a minute — are intruiging. This album is refreshing, too, if only for its absence of po-faced vanguardism. And if Williams sometimes cannot meet his ideas half way, Marshall’s abstractions and Noble’s unique turntables more than makes up for it. Recommended (cautiously), but a poor second to seeing them live. Richard Cochrane