The Founder Effect I - III (Treader, 2013) ****
By Colin Green
The Treader label has been run by John Coxon and Ashley Wales (the duo of “Spring Heel Jack”) since 2006, and to date has produced twenty one CDs. Highlights include Trio with Interludes (Evan Parker, Mark Sanders and Coxon); Abbey Road Duos (Parker and Matthew Shipp) and Treader Duos (including John Butcher and Mark Sanders – my personal favourite).
CD packaging leaves little room for innovative design, but Frauke Stegmann – a London-based illustrator and graphic designer specialising in illustrations of birds, animals and insects – has produced an elegant house style, subtly embossed on card in silver or gold. It makes Treader’s releases immediately recognisable and eminently collectable, which has proved difficult on occasions due to limited availability. The official release of these CDs took place at a performance by the musicians at Cafe OTO in July 2013, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to pick up copies through Treader’s revived website.
The quartet is drawn from London’s rich pool of improvisers (that’s artistically, not financially) and comprises Alan Wilkinson (alto and baritone saxophones) Pat Thomas (synthesizer) Steve Noble (drums) and Coxon (electric guitar). All three CDs were recorded at Abbey Road, Studio 2 on a single day in November 2012, which is pretty good going considering that the Beatles only managed one album in a day at the studio (their first).
This is not music for the faint-of-heart. It’s big, bold and brash. There’s a cultivated lack of refinement to much of what goes on, often using a limited vocabulary for greater immediacy. It has all the subtlety of agricultural machinery – the acidic bite of Coxon’s guitar, fog horn blasts on Wilkinson’s baritone, gloopy slabs from Thomas’ synthesizer, and the wallop of Noble’s drums, whose patterns can sound as if they’ve been set to endless repeat. The players take pleasure in letting go and seeing what happens, operating at the interface of the deliberate and the accidental – Coxon’s guitar chords bristle with overtones and are on the verge of being swallowed up by feedback or the fountainous spray of Noble’s cymbals. Sometimes things take place at an almost visceral level as textures are pulverized until they bleed round the edges, or strung out and stretched to breaking point. From time to time the core temperature cools a little, but with an underlying bristle.
Yet curiously, at its heart this is music-making in the tradition of Brit Improv (no longer an oxymoron) – all about process and discovery – but done in bright primary colours, like an installation sprayed by Katharina Grosse rather than the low-key pastel tones that have often characterised such music.
On The Founder Effect II, Coxon switches to synthesizer and Thomas adds a piano. The pieces are named after three distinguished contributors to the world of free jazz and improv who passed away in the months preceding the session: the drummer Tony Marsh and the saxophonists Lol Coxhill and John Tchicia. Here, the music explores discontinuity and parody, filtered through the medium of free jazz. In Marsh, Thomas plays a free flowing rhapsody – the kind of thing one associates with the piano – and Wilkinson’s saxophone lends lyrical support, juxtaposed with howls and piercing wails outside the alto’s tessitura. To accompany this, Coxon and Noble indulge in a cartoon-like dialogue, but Thomas presses on undeterred until finally overwhelmed. On Tchicia, Wilkinson’s boppish ballad is smothered by subterranean groans until it’s abandoned and a bruising Hammer Horror riff takes over. And so on.
Whether the band is challenging stylistic integrity or just having a bit of fun with any genre that springs to mind is a moot point. The same question could be asked of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, recorded by the Beatles in the same studio forty five years earlier, with a similarly inconclusive answer.
The Founder Effect III consists of just Thomas on piano and Noble (aka “The Duo”) but there’s no let up with such reduced forces (I’m not sure I could recommend listening to more than one of these albums at a time). Thomas attacks the keys with relish and Noble produces the usual panoply of sounds from his kit and assorted accoutrements, sometimes sounding like he’s working his way through the kitchen department of a hardware store. The duo’s nervy and jagged phrases ricochet off each other.
The Founder Effect is a theory of population genetics when a new population is established from a small part of a much larger one. I’ve no idea what, if anything, this has to do with the music. I suspect nothing at all.
The following two clips, although recorded some years earlier, give a good idea of what to expect on these albums: