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Friday, April 17, 2020

Pat Thomas, John Butcher & Ståle Solberg - Fictional Souvenirs (Astral Spirits, 2019) ****

By Paul Acquaro

After almost a year of carrying this one around in my devices and listening only through earbuds, I finally played Fictional Souvenirs through the stereo in the apartment. "Ohh, spooky alien music," said my wife. We typically agree on these things, and I was hearing nothing to suggest anything different. Pianist and electronics player Pat Thomas' oscillating waves cast a distinctly otherworldly pallor to our otherwise light filled room (he's credited here on the Moog Theremini and iPad). Next came drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg's accents and light, precise hits, followed by saxophonist John Butcher's trilling entrance. In fact, at first it's hard to tell if it is electronics or sax, but after a few fluttering runs, the separation becomes more obvious, especially as Thomas' sound palette expands.

The opening track 'Dust' certainly introduces the fascinating experimental context of the recording and it only gets better from there. The group reaches a peak around 3/4 of the way through the track, Solberg and Thomas begin to weave a dense and pulsating foundation for Butcher. He lets go, and the three make a compelling go of it. This is followed by 'Heartaches', which begins with what sounds like a saw cutting through wood. Thomas adds some percussive droplets of sound, it's a bit like a wood workshop now. Butcher comes in some nearly inaudible tones, then with some deeper some deeper tones. The combination is alluring and unique, and quite quiet, but by the last third of the track, the group is trading much more muscular tones. The follow up, 'The Solution', begins with a shots of electricity and chirping saxophonics. The percussionist is the sane one, as Butcher and Thomas gleefully pile up vibrating, fuzzy sonic layers. Somewhere over the course of the album there is an extended moment of uncomfortably piercing electronic sounds, but mostly the textures and shading are in ways thrilling and confounding.

The title is apt, as we are indeed dealing with 'souvenirs', small eye-catching artifacts that somehow remind of us of exactly where are now, but over time take on their own meanings - or sometimes completely lose them. The recording itself is from a show in July 2017 at Iklectik, "Old Paradise Yard", London, and it is nice to take home these mementos from this exploratory trip through space, replete with the sci-fi sound textures and extended acoustics.