Slobber Pup made their recorded debut in 2013 with the incendiary Black Aces, (RareNoise), a recording that prompted me to dub them “a ravening beast of an improv unit, named for bandleader Jamie Saft’s pet pooch, whelped by his 2011 Spanish Donkey collaboration with the Bostonian free-jazz guitarist Joe Morris.”
Saft and Morris have rare mongrel pedigree. Saft has credits with New Zion Trio, Bad Brains, and numerous John Zorn projects among others, while Morris originally specialised in acoustic free music, collaborating with artists diverse as Hession/Wilkinson/Fell and David S. Ware. But these days the pair might be best known for a string of recent recordings for RareNoise, including albums by The Spanish Donkey (a trio with drummer Mike Pride), and Saft’s quintet Plymouth, in which Morris plays alongside Mary Halvorson, another remarkable guitarist. Meanwhile, Slobber Pup’s drummer Balazs Pándi played alongside Saft in the original Metallic Taste of Blood, recorded One with Morris and saxophonist Ivo Perelman, and joined with both Saft and Morris to back Wadada Leo Smith on the latter’s Red Hill. He’s also made two albums for RareNoise with noisemeister Merzbow and Mats Gustafsson, namely Cuts and its follow-up with Thurston Moore guesting, Cuts Deeper.
Pole Axe is the latest product of this pool of restless, and increasingly incestuous collaboration. Bassist Trevor Dunn, who bonded so effectively with Balazs Pándi on Black Aces, is out of the picture—he’s not regarded as a core member of the group, apparently—while Pandi’s Cuts partner Mats Gustafsson is in.
Trading bass for sax, even the brawny saxophony of Gustafsson, has a markedly destabilising effect. Where Black Aces was (is) testicle-tighteningly intense, Pole Axe is altogether more diffuse. Recorded late 2013 in Saft’s studio in the Catskills mountains, the album comprises just three free-form, free jazz/noise odysseys into uncharted territory.
“Pole Of Combustible Memory” opens with the quartet chewing out parallel lines of improvisation, only really combining by dint of a collective paroxysm of animating energy. After a few minutes, this initial impetus abates in all except Morris, who lets loose a torrent of scalding liquid fretwork over splashy cymbals, then grinds out atonal abstractions against sputtering snares as Saft interjects with woozily churchy organ.
What follows in the long middle section of this first piece is a weightless drift of loosely conversant contrasts, torpid, tripped-out psychedelia that’s rather beguiling in parts (mostly Saft’s). Gustafsson plays languidly gravid lines, but there’s not much else to grasp onto until, in an otherwise atypically silent moment, Morris threads lazy, détourned blues through sporadic beats, then lights out for the horizon as Pandi amps up the agitation. This sudden friction whips up a right skronky noise blizzard, and Saft goes full Emerson while Gustafsson testifies into the howling void at the heart of the storm.
Somehow that all resolves into a calm stretch of glitchy abrasion and dissected breakbeats, and when this goes free-form Saft and Morris whip up trippy creativity. Pandi’s the quartet’s anchor and impetus, always on hand to impose some semblance of rhythm.
“Bring Me My Desire And Arrows To Shoot” has a title inspired by William Blake, and it starts and continues suitably wide-eyed and mystical, with Gustafsson’s slo-mo blare beset by a constellation of unorthodox plings and vibrations of fx’d prepared guitar strings amid complex, inharmonic keyboard textures. It’s all rather discomfiting. As the ninth minute approaches, Saft introduces richer, darker and dreamier tonalities, and Gustafsson responds with strangulated anguish. A slow accumulation of intensity leads from there to a hazy, drone-shrouded plateau of unease, along which the piece gradually vaporises. Morris’ guitar, unidentifiable as a sound source for much of the piece, now radiates outwards, unspooling in wiry tendrils of sound.
Gustafsson gets the last piece, a brief encore titled “Incendiary Axe” under way sounding rather bleary, and he’s soon taking a pummelling from Pándi and a scouring by Morris. An abrasive current of electronic noise that runs through here sounds like Gustafsson’s usual fx chain too, though he’s not credited with any electronics. After four minutes the baton passes to Saft to engage with Morris, and drums and sax drop out, inducing a sensation of sudden weightlessness, and the album ends shortly afterwards.
Where the first incarnation of Slobber Pup displayed the ferocity, single-minded intent and tenacity of a pit-fit pit bull terrier, the new quartet is of an altogether more lysergic disposition. So, where Pole Axe isn’t really an appropriate title for this album, as it might’ve been for Black Axes, the canine mystic on the cover—a coolly occult relation to those famously anthropomorphised dogs playing poker—alerts us to the Crowleyite magick that’s been worked on the group sound – Saft’s transmutation of The Tony Williams Lifetime legacy.
Jamie Saft organ, keyboards; Joe Morris guitars; Mats Gustafsson saxophones; Balazs Pándi drums.
Slobber Pup – Black Aces + Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog – Your Turn.
Merzbow Gustafsson Pándi Moore – Cuts Of Guilt, Cuts Deeper.
The Spanish Donkey – Raoul + Joe Morris Quartet – Balance.
Wadada Leo Smith – Red Hill.
Plymouth – Plymouth + Ivo Perelman, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi – One.
Buy Pole Axe direct from Rare Noise.