A drums / jaw harp duo might seem an unusual prospect, but it’s not without precedent for Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford, coming as it does after his 2011 collaboration with theremin player Pamelia Kurstin, which I reviewed both in concert and on album (see Related Posts below).
Like Rochford and Kustin’s Ouch Evil Slow Hop (Slowfoot), David Coulter & Seb Rochford’s Good Friday (Trestle) wastes no time throwing expectations out of the window, and getting down to some serious experimentation.
Rochford is best known as leader of Polar Bear, but his CV is pretty diverse, taking in recording sessions with Brian Eno, occasional membership of Babyshambles, and co-leadership of Trio Libero with Andy Sheppard and Michel Benita.
Coulter’s CV is even more interesting. A multi-instrumentalist, in the 80s he played with both Test Dept and The Pogues concurrently. Now he maintains a career as a session musician alongside work in musical theatre, notably as Associate Musical Director and multi-instrumentalist in Tom Waits and Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider. He made his recorded debut with Intervention, released on Young God in 2000, and subsequently collaborated with Charlemagne Palestine and Jean Marie Mathoul on Maxim (Young God, 2002), an album made “by correspondence”. An expert musical saw player, as heard on TOUT’s excellent 3rd (Trestle), here he plays only jaw harp.
Good Friday was recorded in just one session in 2015 (no prizes for guessing on which day). It’s short – just 28 minutes long – but accommodates fifteen cuts, some of which are brief snippets of experimentation. The 4:26 opening cut (one of the longest) has Rochford’s drumming processed into beats with the muzzy reverberance of frame drums, a steady, speaker cone-pulsing rhythm behind the faster rhythmic twang of the jaw harp.
“2”—none of the pieces on the promo have titles, so I’ll just use the track numbers—has a pronounced motorik quality. It sounds like Rochford is playing with his hands, giving the cut a loose ‘tribal’ feel, but the jaw harp is hypnotic, and there’s a didgeridoo-like under-hum that emphasises an overall trance-like quality. They could’ve spun this vibe out, but they decide 2:22 is long enough. “3” takes off in a higher gear. As on the previous cuts, Coulter turns his breathing into another layer of aerated rhythm, and there’s real rhythmic urgency, but this one lasts only 40 seconds.
“4” is a change of tack, being primarily electronic, a short, disquieting noise fragment that would’ve sounded perfectly at home on the last album I reviewed, 10 Swords, by doom duo The Poisoned Glass; as might the animalistic vocal effects and unnerving clatter on “5”, or the funereal drumming and distorted hum-along on “6”. That’s funereal in the style of New Orleans, as the players stretch and strain against the sedate pace they set themselves and a Swanee whistle queers the vibe.
And so the surprises pile up: instantly febrile carnivalesque on “7” (1:03), an airy interval of lightly processed jaw harp and crotales on “8” (2:24), and the crudely fractured and processed beats that break into a Codona-like vocalised harp mantra on “9” (1:45).
“10” is nothing more than a false start to a series of fragmentary, increasingly abrasively processed harp hits that are daisy-chained to create “11” (2:12). And pieces 12-14, are no more than fragments, albeit vividly distinctive and with a cumulatively provocative effect.
Last cut “15” is a 4:25 bookend complement to “1”, with Rochford’s drums initially given a log drum effect, then subjected to variously violent processing. The album’s penultimate surprise is a vocal chant that hints at the suitably tense and terse climax that comes only after a moment’s silence.
Good Friday‘s succession of sonic nuggets is a real ear-opener, and though I’m glad Rochford and Coulter kept it edgy and nonindulgent it’s over much, much too soon.
David Coulter jaw harp; Seb Rochford drums.
TOUT – 3rd.
Andy Sheppard, Michel Benita, Sebastian Rochford – Trio Libero.
Sebastian Rochford & Pamelia Kurstin – Ouch Evil Slow Hop (reviewed for The Jazz Mann).
Sebastian Rochford & Pamelia Kurstin + Snorkel – Cafe Oto, London, 30/06/2011 (reviewed for The Jazz Mann).