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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Slow is Possible - Moonwatchers (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

If there is such a thing as a “Clean Feed sound,” Slow is Possible are probably not the best spokesband for it. All of the ingredients are there, sure: cello (André Pontífice), alto sax (Bruno Figueira), piano (Nuno Santos Dias), double bass (Ricardo Sousa), electric guitar/electronics (João Clemente), and drums (Duarte Fonseca). The difference, as always, lies in the execution - whereas many groups on the Clean Feed roster use similar combinations of instruments to produce dizzying swirls of improvisation, compositional complexity, and icy abstraction, Slow is Possible take a slightly different route. There are elements of all of those aforementioned things, of course, but there are also healthy portions of post-rock and cinematic music thrown into the mix, as well as abrasive, overdriven outbursts that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Zorn’s early Naked City albums. Moonwatchers, their latest release, sidesteps and subverts the expectations and assumptions that even free jazz listeners tend to hold at times, and the end result is a cohesive, and often gorgeous, collection of music.

“The Lion Dance” opens with an uneasy drone from Pontífice’s cello, a smattering of piano notes, and guitarist Clemente’s sinister insinuations of melody. That melody, when it finally coalesces from amongst all the stray whirlwinds, is an interesting one, indeed; like some of the late-period work of instrumental doom-rock band Earth, it seems to carry shades of Americana and “Wild West” brutalism. At the track’s mid-point, it segues into a hard-driving blues that acts as something of a showcase for the band’s excellent use of dynamics. Figueira’s wounded sax lines weave in and out of the piece like stiching thread crisscrossing a wound, capable of both pained cries and guttural bellows. Drummer Fonseca can only be described as a force of nature - in the quieter moments, he keeps time with a gentle and measured consistency. In louder moments, however, he pummels the kit and matches, as best he can, the explosive guitar-work of Clemente. “Catching Bukowski” is perhaps the most immediately accessible track on Moonwatchers, with its noirish spy-jazz aesthetic and rollicking, exuberant “chorus.” As the piece develops, though, things start to come off the rails a bit: Pontífice, in particular, starts to exhibit a raw physicality that offers an interesting contrast to the precise interplay going on between the others. And at some points, those allusions to Zorn’s Naked City I mentioned become more apparent, with occasional explosive chords from Clemente helping to create a “hardcore” intensity that belies the track’s seemingly traditional approach.   

Interspersed amongst these heavier moments are stretches that, while maintaining the same sense of urgency, are more understated and delicate. “At Land” opens with a diaphanous duet from Clemente and pianist Dias - it’s decidedly somber, but eventually gives way to (what sound like) tribal drums, a lone bird-call, and menacing cello figures from Pontífice. From here, the tension only rises, and the piece reaches something of a climax with rasping wails from Figueira and a wild, percussive attack by Dias that, even after hearing the track several times, comes as a mild shock. “At Land” is another huge chunk of evidence that Slow is Possible are incredibly adept at making dynamics work to their advantage. The next piece, “Barely Visible,” is quite possibly the centerpiece of the album, with its odd and alluring chord changes that, even though they only appear in tantalizingly brief snatches, keep the listener invested in the way that everything unfolds. Sousa’s loping bass-line, static washes of sound from Clemente, and Figueira’s affecting lamentations provide the hypnotic backdrop - compositionally speaking, it’s not terribly complex, but the sextet have a tight control of the structure, speed, and power of the piece, and they know when to pull back and when to go barreling forward. The title track is cut from similar cloth; over fourteen minutes, the band uses repetition to their advantage, lulling you into a reverie only to yank the rug out from beneath your feet with unexpected melodic twists and slow-growing displays of force. As in the previous piece, those louder moments of catharsis always get reeled back into silence - and as before, this expansion-and-contraction prevents things from becoming overbearing or, worse, boring. The final track is a reprise; somber and subdued, it closes the album on an undoubtedly melancholic note, but its cinematic atsmosphere is the perfect way to cap off a collection of music that, due to the evocative melodies and constant exploration of different moods, often seems like the soundtrack to a lost film.

This same filmic quality could be a weak point for some listeners, for sure; while there are plenty of fierce, exhilarating segments to be found on Moonwatchers, there are an equal number of extended passages that, rather than rouse, could have you eyeing the track times in impatience. That being said, Slow is Possible have put together a rewarding album here, and the fact that they sometimes live up to their rather enigmatic band name should be taken as a net positive. Moonwatchers is a thrilling, ambitious release, and I can’t wait to see where this group takes things next!