Forebrace is one of Alex Ward’s groups – the one he’s pitched most decisively left-field of Last Exit. In it, he plays clarinet rather than the other instrument he’s best known for, the electric guitar (cf. N.E.W., or Deadly Orgone Radiation), but, since he puts the clarinet through an overdriven amp, it’s not a Gershwin vibe he’s going for (I’m reminded rather of Patti Smith, wailing away on clarinet to the accompaniment of Ornette Coleman’s band, with Flea on bass). And there’s electric guitar in the mix anyways, courtesy of Roberto Sassi.
Sassi plays in other bands (Vole, Snorkel) that, like Forebrace, really don’t fit into any of the standard pigeonholes. Ditto electric bassist Santiago Horro (Nøught, Luke Barlow Band), and drummer Jem Doulton, Ward’s long-term tag partner in Dead Days Beyond Help. But Forebrace is the more exceptional for combining jazz-prog or noise-rock with the rigour of Ward’s composer’s instinct (cf. his ‘chamber improv’ pieces, such as Glass Shelves and Floor.)
Steeped (Relative Pitch), is the group’s second album, recorded live, mostly at Cafe Oto, London, in February 2016. It kicks off with an urgency never quite bordering abandon but loose enough to allow the spark of abrasive intensities, as when “Hive” ends in pileup backbeats, Horro’s bass grinding away in the depths while Sassi picks out a needling pattern and Ward trills in agitation, only to run right into “Planetesimals”: electric bass as abstract rummage, and Sassi looping fretwork into electronic code, clearing the way for a surprisingly sensitive clarinet/percussion duet, which in turn sets the tone for collectively subdued textural interplay.
The album’s crammed with such sudden shifts, keeping faith with the free imperative of improv while maintaining the its directness through sheer force of impact. And it’s not as clear as you might expect, which pieces are Ward compositions (all the odd numbers), and which are the interstitial collective improvisations.
The leader’s “Stalks” has a regular rhythm, driven by gritty bass and brisk backbeats, tipping into a steamy collective workout to a shuffle groove with choppy wah guitar licks – a rationalisation, perhaps, of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time or Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. Horro wraps this one up with some inventive electronic bass treatments, ahead of the even more foursquare “Crest”, on which the group effectively pounds along behind Ward’s soloing, then collectively drops out to give only sensitive support on an extended segue into the initially abstract/amorphous “Grains” (echoes here of Bill Laswell’s Axiom Ambient project).
“Grains” ultimately builds to a stirringly intense finale, but much of the album’s mettlesome urgency has been replaced by an investment in the sort of extended noise textures that leach into the scuzzy strings-riffing and agitated kit drumming that carry Ward’s warning siren clarinet through “Home Stretch” to a more rhapsodic concluding solo.
The last cut, “Bolt”, an excerpt from an older, 2014, live recording, was well saved to serve as this album’s bruising, helter-skelter locomotive finale.
Steeped actually manages to convey much of the urgency and excitement of the Forebrace live experience, and that’s no mean feat.
Alex Ward clarinet and amplifier; Roberto Sassi electric guitar; Santiago Horro electric bass; Jem Doulton drums.
Deadly Orgone Radiation – Power Trips.
John Coxon and Alex Ward – Clarinet Record.
Alex Ward Quintet – Glass Shelves and Floor.
Spring Heel Jack with Pat Thomas, Alex Ward and Paul Lytton – Live in Antwerp.
Thurston Moore with Tom Raworth, Alex Ward and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, 20 March 2012.
Buy Steeped direct from Relative Pitch Records.