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Friday, June 9, 2023

Thermal - Ice in a Hot World (Unsounds Records, 2023)

By Martin Schray

John Butcher is unique even in the very free universe of the improv scene. Like no other, he is both at home in the world of European free jazz, which is obvious in his trio with bassist Wilbert DeJoode and drummer Martin Blume (Low Yellow, Jazzwerkstatt, 2018), and in the world of sound exploration. For the latter he chooses special places that act like a fellow musician for his sonic excursions. This can be heard ideally on his album Resonant Spaces (Confront, 2008), which presents Butcher playing sets at obscure sites in Scotland – including an old military fuel tank on the Orkneys with a 15-second echo, as well as an abandoned reservoir, a sea cave, and a mausoleum. Butcher chose them for their specific, idiosyncratic acoustic properties.

Thermal, in contrast to his solo efforts, is a trio with The Ex-guitarist Andy Moor and German analogue synthesizer wizard Thomas Lehn that has existed since 2001. Butcher says that he enjoys their different backgrounds (especially Moor’s). For him the band doesn’t set out to play “improvised music“, although they are improvising. He says that the musicians “construct the music against a background where they have different ways of hearing (or contextualising) what they are actually doing“. The result is that the three complement each other quite exquisitely, which can be heard best on “Autumn Fireflies“, the second and longest track on Ice in a Hot World. The piece is divided into several parts, at the beginning Lehn’s synthesizer bleeps through the room as if he was lost in thought, while Moor works the corpus of his guitar and sounds like a gloomy bell. Butcher contributes click sounds very sparingly. Part two is a solo by Moor, atonal but airy, as if he was listening intensely into the depths of his instrument. After 5:20 minutes there is a break and Butcher takes over, also for a solo. Structurally, one can definitely detect a closeness to Evan Parker, the free-jazz-Butcher shows off in all his beauty for two minutes. It seems that the sounds are thrown back at the musicians in long echoes. Actually however, the room is not especially reverberant - but Lehn’s synth has a built-in mechanical spring echo which makes the music sound more reverberant overall. Here, it’s a feast for the sonic explorers in the musicians. Additonally, what seems like an incoherent jigsaw first, flows together very delicately and cautiously in the end. Everything is relaxed but also very intense, concentrated and focused. The further the piece progresses, the more condensed the sounds become, the tempo is increased, and it gets apparent how much the three musicians are also at home in improvised music. It sounds as if your ear is in a beehive. And at the end, the music gently floats out. Even formally it’s a perfectly rounded track - it seems that it follows a song-like structure, probably “due to Andy’s approach“, as Butcher suggests.

Ice in a Hot World is a very beautiful album, it shows real masters at work. Listeners who like to discover small, fine details, can’t go wrong here.

Thermal’s Ice in a Hot World is available as a CD and as a download.