Black Host – Life in the Sugar Candle Mines (2013)

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Alternately volcanic, fragile, and threatening, but always jagged, Black Host is as inscrutable an ensemble as there is, consisting of five well-established figures of advanced jazz. Life In The Sugar Candle Mines, their debut album, has the sounds and gumption of forward-thinking, talented musicians (which these fellows are) hungry to gain their first taste of widespread notice (which these fellows have already achieved, but they don’t act that way).

Black Host is made up of Darius Jones (alto sax), Cooper-Moore (piano, synthesizers), Brandon Seabrook (guitar), Pascal Niggenkemper (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), a quintet that benefits greatly being led by an insightful, intelligent individual and also fully leveraging all the assembled talent by performing as a selfless, group improvising ensemble. This band is the brainchild of Cleaver, who wrote nearly all the songs and was responsible for “sound design.” Cleaver, however, leads from the rear, as he rarely solos — if he does at all — and is content to let Seabrook, Cooper-Moore and Jones take up most of the focus.

Sure, these guys can play, and they’re led by one of the best drummers in the business. The distinctive thing about Black Host isn’t that, though. It’s the weird, woolly way they play within Cleaver’s permissive, fractal song construction and the lo-fi echoes that suggest psychedelic rock, free jazz, electronica, noise rock…just about any form of music on the fringe and a few forms that stand a few feet inside, too. I see David Torn listed as the guy who mastered this record and I can’t help but think that the Master Texturalist himself played a role in shaping the sound as well, after the fact.

Almost long enough to span two discs, Life In The Sugar Candy Mines oscillates from dense to scattered and back over the course of eight performances and seventy-seven minutes. There are no pleasantries here, as the five jump right into unhinged noisy jazz to start off “Hover,” the first track. Eventually it settles into a circular rhythm pattern topped by demanding, sustained notes by Jones and Seabrook, and it’s about this time that a definable, even melodic theme emerges amidst fuzz and electronic squiggles. That makes way for Cooper-Moore, who is percussive and urgent with his piano solo. Before long, a cacophony builds up, returning the song into the free jazz of the beginning, setting into motion a repeat of the phases, with lots of group improv. Cooper-Moore distributes driving abstractions, Seabrook rocks out with a muscular rhythm section, and Jones just wails. There’s so much stuffed into “Hover,” it’s the sound of a band trying to cover every touch point of its varied character before the listener makes it to Track 2. But as the other songs reveal, they were just getting started.

“Ayler Children” is at the core acoustic out-jazz underpinned by an elusive rhythm section and fronted by frantic abstruse articulations from Cooper-Moore. Jones and Seabrook initially play at half speed from rest of band in reciting sorrowful drones together. And then, Seabrook enjoins the quicker pace with a Sonny Sharrock tear. Soon, Jones butts in, too, no doubt feeling like he’s with Little Women, as Cleaver pushes them hard from behind. With such a build up, it’s inevitable that they are headed for a crash, and the song collapses into an metal heap.

The ghostly and spectral “Citizen Rose” is a breather for the boys; a strange but alluring ambient aura pervades the song from beginning to end. Seabrook adept at the lonely, eerie textures with his fractured lines, and Cooper-Moore’s synth adds further to the mood. Cleaver and Niggenkemper establish a insistent pulse on “Test-Sunday,” the other three rising up from silence to tinker with a loose, repeating figure. The band interplay here is fascinating; the front three trade off pairings, and Cleaver holds the song together by subtly controlling the tempo. “Amsterdam/Frames” is spatial, with Cooper-Moore and Jones trying to uphold a real melody as Seabrook seems intent on dousing it out with his arsenal of noises and fractured effects.

On the relentless industrial drone of “Gromek,” Cleaver’s booming sonic blasts are the sounds of war in the distance. Meanwhile, Jones and Seabrook emit sustained notes and Cooper-Moore adds his dissonant shards. Both the saxophone and guitar grow more impatient and “Gromek” just keeps gets denser and denser. “Wrestling,” adapted from “Mikrokosmos No, 108” by Bela Bartok, consists of a nervous synth amidst electro screeching and squeaking in front of Cleaver’s commanding jungle beats. Jones engages the synthesizer and Seabrook adds the crunch, as electronic effects, looping and sampling are tossed into the mix for fun. “May Be Home” is sparse and dirge-like all the way through. Cooper-Moore puts forth pretty intimations as Niggenkemper is spinning his own supple lines right alongside.

Black Host’s Life In The Sugar Candle Mines is mysterious, dramatic and other-worldly. Cleaver has always thrived on the edge of jazz, but with the help of this ensemble, he goes straight into the abyss. Like a real pro, too.

Life In The Sugar Candle Mines is set for release on May 28, from Northern Spy Records.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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