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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ripsaw Catfish - Namazu (Raw Tonk Records, 2017) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

There’s something inherently revealing about a duo performance. Being let into a discrete conversation between two musicians creates a kind of intimacy, I think, between the duo and listener. This is heightened in person, but a great recording can also bridge this gap across the digital divide. Case in point, Ripsaw Catfish’s latest, Namazu. A guitar-baritone sax duo based in England—guitarist Anton Hunter resides in Manchester, while saxophonist Cath Roberts is in London—Ripsaw Catfish is as stunning as its biological namesake.

Namazu is the duo’s second album for Raw Tonk, following their debut, For the Benefit of the Tape. This new album was recorded over two live shows. “Stone” and “Mud,” from October 2016, comprise the first half of the album. “Thrash,” from November 2016, wraps things nicely with a non-stop 20+ minutes of fierce improvisation.

“Stone” begins with an almost skittish tease. Around seven minutes in, Hunter breaks into some grandly abstract noise, and Roberts goes searing off-planet into the upper register of her baritone sax. As radical as the shift seems, it's just as rapidly deconstructed. The track ends as Roberts blows a relaxed melody contrasting Hunter’s punk-ish feedback. These contrasting textures reappear in “Mud,” a longish textural improvisation that sustains its high-wire tension for over 15 minutes. Hunter has a way of subverting the guitar by pushing it to some highly unexpected places. He’ll drag his pick across the strings, then quickly shift into muted staccato.

Fittingly, the final piece, “Thrash,” recapitulates several ideas and threads first presented in “Stone” and “Mud.” Opening with a ping-pong game of Roberts’s pops and Hunter’s muted picking and plucking, the single performance very quickly shifts into a playful, driving improvisation. These constant shifting dynamics mean no one person stays in the lead for long. Roberts plays some melancholic lines midway through “Thrash,” which Hunter gently steers into a kind of post-rock drone, before the two pivot again into a section of thorny, abstract interplay. There’s a sense of humor underlying some of the more heightened improvisation, befitting a band that named itself for a dangerously thorny fish. Similarly, the album title, Namazu, comes from a Japanese folktale about a large fish. The triptych retells the myth of Namazu, who is kept in place by a stone, buried in the mud beneath Japan, until it gets free and thrashes about, causing major earthquakes. ‘Nuff said?