Electro-acoustic jazz, if that’s what this is, is starting to sound less academic, and more like something that comes naturally, and is played for fun and on impulse. Which isn’t to deny the obvious tricksiness of a band that would call itself Fiium Shaarrk, nor the care they’ve taken over their new album.
The music contains quirky but effective juxtapositions, nicely reflected in the juxtaposition of an album title taken from an artwork by Barbara Kruger and its own, unrelated artwork: they mesh, when they shouldn’t, necessarily. Influences feeding into We Are Astonishingly Lifelike include Afro-Cuban rhythm, post-rock, drum’n’bass, dark ambient and musique concrete.
Fiium Shaarrk is a trio – Rudi Fischerlehner (drums), Maurizio Ravalico (percussion) and Isambard Khroustaliov (electronics) – with an intriguing backstory.
Ravalico is an Italian percussionist – he’s the one with a taste for Afro-Cuban music. He co-founded Afroshock in the 90s. He also played with Jamiroquai in their pomp, but later made up for it by working with tuba player Oren Marshall. He’s been a long-term member of Fela Kuti keyboard player Dele Sosimi’s Afrobeat Ensemble, and plays in the house band of Fela! the musical. But he also pursues a parallel interest in improvised music in duo with Fiium Shaarrk’s Khroustaliov, aka Sam Britton of laptop duo Icarus and Leverton Fox.
In 2006, Ravalico and Khroustaliov released their first album, Five Loose Plans, and organised the Appliances sessions under the aegis of Khroustaliov’s Not Applicable organisation (many excellent performances documented by an extensive online archive, An Introduction to Not Applicable). The duo then joined forces with Fischerlehner, an Austrian-born drummer whose various projects (Xenofox, RMF, Parrot’s Feathers) fuse improvised and experimental music with jazz and post-rock, and they recorded Fiium Shaarrk’s debut, No Fiction Now!, in 2012.
Maurizio’s percussion set-up has incorporated instruments such as the surdo (Samba bass drum), Tibetan bowls, and cymbals, and objects such as “kitchen utensils, marbles, film tapes, magnolia leaves, and…industrial machine (parts)”. The balance between his playing and Fischerlehner’s relatively orthodox kit drumming seems utterly democratic. They seem effortlessly compatible, and I guess Khroustaliov’s processing, using his own software, is a further leveller of sorts, though he’s mostly playing electronics this time around, rather than live-sampling.
So the influences feeding into the music – all the Batucada, Krautrock and whatnot – are run through the Fiium Shaarrk blender, and the output is both dynamic and brittle at times, texturally and rhythmically complex but loose-limbed, propulsive and free-flowing.
The seven album cuts were recorded between 2013 and 2015 in studios in London, Aarhus and Berlin, but all sound sharply focused and concentrated, and flow in an apparently coherent pattern emphasised by reprises. Focus shifts between dominant percussive and electronic inputs mostly occur at macro- rather than microscopic level, but the music also has a kaleidoscopic mutability, thanks to intricate time changes and electronic splice effects.
“Conundrums” establishes the pattern of post-rock back- and break- beats, brisk hi-hat, bustling metallic percussion and dense, atonal electronics that reminded me of Hank Shocklee’s Bomb Squad sound – just as, overall, I get a nagging recurring reminder of Massive’s “Unfinished Sympathy”.
“Gustav (The Stuffed Red Panda)” is a complete contrast. No longer propulsive, beginning with isolated mallet strikes, cymbal scrapes, rim shots and electronic tweaks that slowly accumulate into a jittery thicket of rhythmic ticks and pulses. Invasive drones thicken the brew, and set cymbals buzzing as all that twitchy energy gets burned off in a coda of dark, shimmering ambience.
“The Last Common Sense” injects some noise , including electric guitar feedback into a grimier intro, but the twinned percussionists set up a bright, crisp pulse and the music floats free of the murk guided by a sampled, wordless female vocal. As Fischerlehner and Ravalico up, bustle and out, Khroustaliov lays on gauzy 70s-style synth washes and occasional throbs of more clubby dark psychedelia.
And the variations keep coming. “All the Awe Leans” is sparser, staccato and abstract, brief uptakes of momentum and brief kit drum solos alternating with electronic interludes, all separated by back-slash one-note piano samples.
While “Krypton Tunning” returns to rhythm it keeps it light, focused on chime percussion and rim-shots, with Khroustaliov dropping funky synth bass into the mix. “Bogan Sunrise” is slower and fuller-sounding, marrying the low, vibratory bass buzz of early darkcore drum’n’bass to bare mid-paced backbeats and bright, brittle Chinese cymbal hits.
Khroustaliov showing another face on almost every cut, he adds a touch of 1950s, Manhattan Research-era Raymond Scott to final cut “The Great Swimming Pool of Liberation”‘s trippy voyage into outer sound, and as it develps the comparisons others have made to Varèse and Stockhausen suddenly start to make some kind of sense.
I’ll admit that the group’s name put me on guard against pretensions of the worst kind, but I needn’t have worried. We Are Astonishingly Lifelike is enthralling, beautifully realised and, for all its apparent influences, refreshingly box-fresh unorthodox.
Rudi Fischerlehner – drums; Maurizio Ravalico – percussion; Isambard Khroustaliov – electronics.
Buy We Are Astonishingly Lifelike from the Not Applicable Bandcamp.