In concert, Dan Nicholls’ Ruins apparently has accompanying visuals incorporating text, stills, video and animation, and I can imagine how that would complete the package; but the stand-alone musical component is more than satisfactorily vivid and complete. It imbues the nervy dynamism of 90s ‘downtown’ New York with both the raw charge of early electric jazz and the grainy microsonics of glitch-era electronica, a potent brew.
Much as the Ruins ensemble often betrays those New York influences—specifically Tim Berne’s groups, Hard Cell and Science Friction, to which pianist Craig Taborn contributes electric keys and sound processing—Nicholl’s compositions exploit its distinctive blend of instrumentation. In this bass-less ensemble, woodwinds combine with the burr of electric instrumentation and a Hammond’s distinctive waveforms.
The Hammond is played by Kit Downes, with Nicholls doubling on organ and also playing Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos, tapes, and a Roland monophonic analog synth. The group is completed by Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet), James Allsopp (tenor saxophone and clarinet), and drummer Dave Smith. Tom Challenger guests on alto to form a clarinet trio for the opening brace of tracks, “Blinkers” and “Chaos Happens”.
Those first tracks move from a light interplay of dappled Rhodes and processed percussion to the latter’s punchier, almost funky exposition, where tenor sax chews through interlocking clarinet and electric keys to solo lyrically over full-blooded Hammond multitracks and driving percussion. The extraction of a tight, looped melodic sax lick is very Berne-like.
Press notes say that Ruins “challenges motives for music-making”, and pixellated stills and obscured texts on the album artwork suggest an anti-war agenda. Printed lyrics for a dark-ambient interlude titled “The Scrolling Banner” damn rolling news coverage of wartime atrocity as collusion in “feign(ed) integrity”. But none of that, beyond an undercurrent of ominous brooding, impinges on the music.
The album’s centrepiece is the diptych of “Ruins…”/”…Missing in Action”. The former comes into focus through a glimmering of electronic motes as a series of propulsive, hypnotic repetitions that finally gain traction and propel Shabaka Hutchings into an inspired bass clarinet solo. “…Missing in Action”, apparently based on a lo-fi cassette tape sample, is more abstract, the ensemble’s eventual harmonisation built on loose foundations.
On the intro to “Withdrawal, Kalimba-like patterns played on an acoustic Wurlitzer are translated into a punchy groove that underpins jazzy organ solos and tight, looping woodwind figures,. The latter carry over into “”Strobes on the Ascent”, where multiphonics and electric keys create a sense of cool, weightless atmospherics. “Voice Intercepts” is edgier still, a percussive shuffle under a groove riven by rim shots, cymbals and initially tamped keys.
The album’s final track, “idontknow” is Nicholls solo, his Rhodes, fed through echo fx and amplifier hum, subject to tape manipulations, sounds blooming isolate in a sense impression of cold void.
Striking use is made throughout of tapes and samples, creating distinctive textures, and combination of reeds and Hammond organs in both melodic lead and bass registers is highly effective. If Nicholl’s intent is essentially polemic, Ruins is by turns thoughtful and instantaneous, never mired in moody introspection but far from shy of getting a groove on from time to time. Great stuff.
More info/streaming here.