In their debut liner notes, Fail Better! described themselves as “a collaborative group born out of pre-existing projects that brought together part of the members of this quintet (The Nap, Frame Trio and Guimarães/Pais duo).” Because the musicians seem busy with so many different projects, I wasn’t sure if we’d hear from them again for another 3-5 years. So I was both surprised and delighted to see a new album up for grabs on the review list, and digitally jumped at the chance to review. The Portuguese scene has, for years now, cranked out exceptional experimental, genreless music. Fail Better! falls somewhere in the category of improvised jazz rock, but the group doesn’t create fusion or crossover music. Instead, Fail Better! moves in waves of sound, and the whole album effortlessly floats along, as each player dips in and out of the stream (to keep with the watery metaphors).
The group is a superb assembly of improvising musicians: Luís Vicente (trumpet), João Guimarães (alto saxophone), Marcelo dos Reis (electric guitar), José Miguel Pereira (double bass), and João Pais Filipe (drums). As with their debut album, Zero Sum, OWT was recorded live in Coimbra, this time in 2014.
If anything, Fail Better! has found a way to up the ante on their collaboration. I thought Zero Sum had a heavy, dark beauty to it. On OWT, they’ve brightened the sound a bit by adding a lot of space. For example, “Sidereal” has dos Reis and Filipe layering pulsing drones beneath Vicente and Guimarães’s more insistent improvisations, creating a tension between the rhythm section’s trance-like groove and the jazzier trumpet and sax lines. “In Between” goes in a slightly more introspective direction, with Vincente on muted trumpet. “Circular Measure,” which features Filipe’s trademark gongs, is a possible standout, as dos Reis, Vicente, and Guimarães play jagged, contrasting lines like sine waves over Pereira and Filipe’s subtle funk. As a single example of what makes the group exceptional, the clashing improvisation of “Circular Measure” highlights the strong connections between all the players; on multiple listens you can concentrate on hearing the shape of the whole or simply focus on any one player.
OWT closes with the ten-minute “Stellar,” a wonderfully ethereal conclusion. Again, there’s that feeling of space (in a non-celestial sense) with Filipe’s percussive playing intertwining beautifully with both Pereira’s arco work and dos Reis’s clanging electric guitar. Guimarães plays so comfortably in this space, I really could listen to him all day (do check out his octet album Zero for a more composed but similar take on this sound). And Vicente’s playing is just incredible, as always. One final note, the cover, by NoBusiness house designer Oskaras Anosovas, is gorgeous and appropriately celestial.
Clip of the performance: