AMPERSAND 2001/14


STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND
Budapest
ac/dB (Hayden)
Grob 315 and 316

This is effectively a double set (which will also be available as a boxed set) presenting a live album and a pair of studio pieces which aims to give us a clearer view of this Swiss (!) trio. Both come with long intense liner notes, and I was prepared to be unimpressed, and was pleasantly surprised.
AC/dB combines two works - AC is by the group, while dB was composed for them by Sam Hayden - and tracks generally alternate. I thought that this wouldn't work (gosh, I went in negative!) but it actually creates quite a strong effect - suggesting that AC may have been written in response to dB - and is quite approachable. Hayden tends to use the bands instrumentation (drums, bass, keyboard/electronics) more conservatively while the group are more experimental in their use of electronics in particular, but also vary the tone into wider fields. The engineering is brilliant - you can hear each instrument and their notes clearly which helps with this sort of complex music.
After a dense full-on intro, the first part of AC is a light electro-spacey drift, before dB presents its melodic line with pulsing organ and drum attack. The alternations continue, rapid, light percussive waves then active pumping organ chords on driven drum and bass; semirandom piano with scratchy percussion developing a complex dense web, followed by a dB piano piece where the piano drives both rhythm and tune through the lower keys, while the high keys provide some highlights. AC changes the mood again with another electro piece which swirls and rings with Theremin like sounds, long organ and tones building to a percussive high end and into a pulsing drum/bass duo supported by some keyboards and electronics in long melodic lines, settling into a groove. Tinkling percussion and high piano, scratching bass strings in an abstract section and the dB's most extreme, with semiatonal keyboards and slow rhythms which segue into a rocky driving workout. AC concludes with a spacey whirling spiral from the keys, cymbal rolls in a staccato attack, and dB a spacious breezy organ, bass and tappity percussion.
With its mix of rock (including hints of some germanic workouts) and jazz, a fascinating and enjoyable album. And the pleasure continues in "Budapest", a live piece bookended by two tracks by Stephan Wittwer (their mixer) who opens with a 45 second jumpy fragmented pieces from the group, and ends with a 2 minute compilation of strong grooves (apparently from encores and suggestible of Deep Purple or Zeppelin!) that acts as a lovely finale. In between we get a 40 minute concert piece, indexed to 6 parts which, while continuous, have been chosen as the direction of the work changes. It starts with a general group workout then shifts through a series of solos - electronic squeals and warbles, percussion and organ, bass, before moving back to a quiet ensemble finale. But in reality the whole work is ensemble - during the 'solos' the other two are active and putting in some fascinating sounds. Surprisingly there is more exploration into quieter atmospheric areas than in ac/dB, and further forays into harsh edgy regions, but never too far for my ears. This is helped by the fact that the keys are mainly Hammond organ, which has a lovely tone and is redolent of spacerock from the sixties and seventies. Another feature is the bass which often takes an almost guitar position rather than merely support.
The linernotes referred to the neoavantgarde and dutch minimalism - not really close to my bailiwick. What I can say is that I really enjoyed these two, and they do make an enjoyable pair. Steamboat avoid the bombast or noise-for-noise-sake that can come with the territory, work a rhythmic and melodic vein, but are not without complexity and edge.
Jeremy Keens
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