Heavy Beauty

Propaganda
Ava 017

Sloth Racket

Triptych

Luminous label LU 002

Contemporary photographs of Russia’s Nicholas II and Great Britain’s George V show them to resemble one another so strongly that they could have been mistaken for twins. But the personalities and concepts of the autocratic final Romanov, executed by the Bolsheviks and the constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom who lived to a ripe old age couldn’t have been more different. So it is with these bands. Both seem to take their cues from hard-core aggregations like The Thing which are as much about Metal and Noise as Free Music, and both have similar personnel, heavy on guitar, bass, drums and saxophones. But the similarities end there.

Many time during the eight selections on Propaganda, Heavy Beauty with a front line of Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär and Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockunas plus bass guitarist Henno Kelp and drummer Andrus Lillepea appears to be only a few shuffle beats away from mutating into a full-fledged Rock band. On the other hand, Sloth Racket, whose front line includes saxophonists Cath Roberts and Sam Andreae and guitarist Anton Hunter plus bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter dampens the initial exuberance of the snorting sax-heavy first track to reveal its links to less structured Free Music.

Especially when hooked into the bass sax, Mockunas, who has played with the likes of Barry Guy and Williams Hooker in the past, seems to be channeling the pseudo rock-squawk of The Thing’s Mats Gustafsson more than anyone. When on “Donald Is Back in Town” that reed overblowing is coupled with the showy thumping from Lillepea, who appears unsure if he’s Gene Krupa or John Bonham and Sooäär lets loose with Psychedelic-era flanges and knob twirling you could have stepped into the Wayback Machine to 1969 with Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

This same sort of interface is prominent on many of the other tracks with the guitarist’s trebly timbres on “Lonely Clown” seemingly configured as an addendum to Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” and only saved from excesses somnolence by sour inserts from Mockunas’s horn. Like a recorded catalogue of easy-lesson pop-rock effects, some tracks emphasize overbearing cymbal work. Others are weighed down with industrial strength drumming which make Sooäär’s earlier forays with Han Bennink – no slouch in percussion punishing – sound like chamber music

Happily a track such as “Out of Here” showcases the group’s other side. Atmospheric with overlapping textures, it resembles some of Joe Zawinul’s more plotted compositions. Sooäär’s pulsations provide the dilatory pseudo-keyboard parts that contrast nicely with chipper textures from the saxophonist, culminating in a climax that could be termed outer-space-metal. Even more generic to the blending the quartet aims for is the title track. Mockunas’ honks come out like trumpeting snorts from a mastodon seeking prey, joining with aggressive knob-twisting and electrified flanges from Sooäär to suggest the repressed danger of a dormant yet bubbling volcano. As the saxophonist’s hoarse cries mix with unyielding patterning from the strings plus drum rattles, the triumphant climax attained is one part 1960s freak-our and one part 2016 atonal Free Jazz,

On the evidence that begins “Crossed Swords”, Sloth Racket is more wedded to Free Jazz, especially in trying to replicate those transcendent moments where reed avatars like Charles Tyler and Albert Ayler or Peter Brötzmann and Frank Wright would face off. But like a film director who films an approximation rather than a literal recreation of scenes from earlier productions, the quintet does better muting its Free Jazz homage into less frenetic musings. With only an occasional guitar lick, bowed bass line plus saxophone key percussion and reed bites the band sounds convincingly like a subdued British Free Music ensemble. That’s understandable since the British Hunter Brothers have recorded with the likes of saxophonist/bassoonist Mick Beck.

“Endgame”, the final and longest track, succinctly demonstrates how the four can singularly mix its Free Jazz and Free Music qualities like a cosmopolitan sophisticated enough to pair a leather jacket with brogues. With a touch of macabre menace, Bennett’s bass strokes ground the narrative even as they move it forward as if it was a thriller’s sound track .At the same time Anton Hunter’s folk-country string rubs and the others’ reed shrieks try to disrupt the line. Varied motifs on the track amalgamate because while rough edges appear in the form of saxophone warbles and sputters, an overall relaxed feel is maintained.

Like first novels, debut session often portend little. Right now Triptych suggests that the distastefully named Sloth Racket may be on a serious course, but it must define itself from among its influences to be truly distinctive. For its part Propaganda is a little too much like present-day Russian foreign policy – aggressive without much compromise. If it can play more to its glasnost strengths and less to Putin-like assault, its future will be notable as well.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Propaganda: 1. Perfect Escape 2. Donald Is Back In Town 3. Out of Here 4. Lonely Clown 5. Karate 6. L.M. 7. Propaganda 8. Happy Monster

Personnel: Propaganda: Liudas Mockunas (bass, soprano, tenor saxophones); Jaak Sooäär (guitar); Henno Kelp (bass guitar) and Andrus Lillepea (drums)

Track Listing: Triptych: 1. Crossed Swords 2. Circling 3. Endgame

Personnel: Triptych: Sam Andreae (tenor saxophone); Cath Roberts (baritone saxophone); Anton Hunter (guitar); Seth Bennett (bass) and Johnny Hunter (drums)