Forebrace is a quartet led by Alex Ward and featuring Roberto Sassi (of Vole, Snorkel and other groups), Santiago Horro (Luke Barlow Band, Nought) and Jem Doulton (Dead Days Beyond Help). Steeped is their second album, following 2013’s Bad Folds, and was recorded live – mostly at Cafe Oto and a bit at the Vortex, both London.
Due September 30, 2016 via Relative Pitch Records, the album captures the essence of live performance with a sense of atmosphere, the odd tweak and squeak – everything which makes live music good, in fact. Steeped leaves very little to be desired. In the blurb, their music is said to reference numerous influences from Derek Bailey to Ornette Coleman and his Prime Time ensembles but, in actual fact, though there may be passing references, this music is beyond those both in time and deliverance. Not better but certainly different and very much of this time, the now of improvised music – and that is a very good thing.
“Hive,” which opens Steeped, is a glorious stomping journey in improvisation over a relentless and unmitigating rhythm. There is the pent up energy of a cricket caught in a trap, and the drums pound mercilessly. Meanwhile, guitars and Ward’s clarinet play havoc with the senses when it drives home the rhythms in the latter sections. Fortisimo and grandisimo are the only essences here, and this track opens up the ears and mind in ways hitherto unforseen. Split second timing and dynamic interactions make this an absolutely wonderful track with layer upon layer of depth and color, in the true sense of jazz music. Alex Ward pushes his clarinet to the extreme and creates a mania, echoed by the ferocity of the support. Marvelous.
Forebrace’s opening track drops suddenly into “Planetesimals,” which begins with electronic wizardry and mayhem before settling into … well, settling is entirely the wrong word. Rather, mixing would be more appropriate, as each instrument adds a suggestion which is stirred a little and then dropped to be replaced by something else – even a silence at one point, into which a deep, electronic bass note comes to stealthily stalk the listener before percussion dapples over the top. Then, the clarinet introduces yet another theme, overriding the network created underneath. Later, it gets a bit ethereal before a little contrapuntal interjection from the drums and bass turn it into something different again.
The bass riff from the next track enters and then, after a brief pause, “Stalks” begins in earnest. This Forebrace track is structurally magnificent, building up from the re-introduced bass riff and working its way through various relationships until it becomes something of a rocky little number. Yet, hold the front page, over this rock-thumping rhythm comes the jazz – and it is good jazz. Alex Ward almost steals a Stan Getz style for a second, but yet maintains his distinctive harsher tone and then he goes mellow: This is a great track with structure, drive and sheer conversation. The clarinet’s weaving of majors into minors over the continuum of the riff is genius and works so well, not to mention the dexterity with which Ward’s fingers flick over the keys of his ebonite instrument. “Stalks” was written by Ward, and is a great insight into the workings of this musician. It could maybe do without the flickering electronics at the end, but is a great piece of work.
“Crest” thumps and bangs its way along at the start and works well as a vehicle over which the clarinet soars – taking off on what is, in many ways, its own little journey of balladic style musical speech. It’s totally at odds with the bass line and yet, in the hands of these guys, it works because the interaction is so good. Subtle pulses and variations in the rhythm make room for the high pitched song of the clarinet, before descending into silence almost in the middle section, interjected with squeaks and puckers from the clarinet – again taking the listener into a sound arena of Forebrace’s making.
“Grains” begins with the Alex Ward’s clarinet in almost comedic mode, laughing its way into the piece before buzzing and fluttering around like a demon over the steady electronic understories. The piece goes on to develop some interesting dynamics as the instruments take and pass the lead. There is a referenced theme which re-appears on occasion, but it is regularly hidden by the discussions going on above it, developing into a Coleman-esque dissipation of sounds. Seamlessly, we find ourselves at “Home Stretch,” which opens with a delicious electronic descension where the drums pick up the beat and introduce a lovely mix of rhythms over which the clarinet enters, dictating its own, higher end theme. They work separately yet together until the clarinet is left wailing over the top. The whole thing then disappears into silence – which is as effective – and the clarinet re-opens the discussion, including some lovely stut work. Ward excels, reminiscent of Pete Brotzmann at times, yet very much Ward.
“Grains” slides into “Bolt,” where the clarinet takes off on a crazy, rhythmic journey, over strong percussive beats. They’re defiant and loud before the rhythm solidifies and drives you crazy. This is tremendous, energetic, strong and absolutely pitch and beat perfect. That concludes Steeped, a great album with structure, depth and communication.
There are jazz references all the way through, tempered with rock, funk and even the odd ethereal section, where the intonations can be heard clearly and effectively. Exploration is felt but as a shared journey, not as an observation. Forebrace’s Steeped engages, gives the sense of live interaction and it works incredibly well. In the music, particularly tracks 1 and 3, you can hear references to many greats like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Bailey with the intricacy and dextrous little asides which you hear clearly on the second or third listen. But it all makes perfect sense, and imitation is not the theme here: These musicians have their own way of delivering. The final track is possibly the best, but there is not much to choose between them all.
Forebrace have the making of a long runner, and Steeped is simply great music.