Fernando Ulzión / Mikel Vega / Txemi Artigas / Iker Arrazola / Joxean Rivas

September 7, 2021


Gnowot Records gnw 001

Matteo Ciminari

Fried Hippocampus

Chant Records CR2012 MA

Obstreperous but not obnoxious these European combos present pronounced instances of mature Pop-Rock-Jazz. Conspicuous piquancy is part of the appeal, although one emphasizes precision and the other grunge.

Grungy without sloppiness, the Orbain Unit works to avoid Metal music sludge during the four improvisations from the five-piece Spanish unit. Veterans of the Basque Country’s indie Rock and Improv Jazz scenes, members’ tough sound reflect the area’s industrial capabilities. With gritty undercurrents each track bleeds into the next. Squeezing and sliding the sometime cross-pollinated tracks maintain an electronic drone undercurrent, Featured alongside is continuous pounding from drummers Iker Arrazola and Joxean Rivas, intense pulses from Txemi Artigas’ electric bass and guitarist Mikel Vega’s swelling frails, twangs and oscillations as screeches, whines and peeps from saxophonist Fernando Ulzión stretch across the expositions. Overall the group negotiates between head banging and finger snapping rhythms. The most prominent instance of head snapping occurs on “Kurtzea” which shakes with a Bo Diddley-like beat. Here fly-by-plane-like guitar licks solidify beside electronic whizzes and tremolo saxophone licks until the widening exposition is pierced by synthesized jitters and hardened reed tongue stabs. This sonic overlay trickles into the extended and surprising melodic “Powerhouse”. While intense motifs are thrust out by a tight machine drones and fluid bass guitar thumps, the expositions fragments leaving whatever pseudo-lyricism there is to come from descending guitar flanges. Sound pressure finally reaches a plateau and the piece climaxes with layers of buzzing, thumping percussion and thin guitar note stretches.

Boasting tighter arrangements but a looser ensemble, Fried Hippocampus features seven musicians, not all of whom play on every track. Archetypically it was recorded remotely in several Italian and UK home studios during Covid-19 lockdown. But modern technology means that its nine selections are no more dissociated than Xerai’s four. All were composed by guitarist/keyboardist Matteo Ciminari, whose creative arrangements give them a joyous, ambulatory stamp. Still the performances are sometimes betrayed by sonic distance when the sequences and turns around seem too clean and note perfect. Luckily that is avoided most of the time.

Some tracks may be on their way to become Rock ballads, while one features a lilting Hawaiian overlay. The concluding “A Woman” is even more unique. Accompanied by only vocalized electric piano and Ciminari’s 1920s-style banjo clucks, the foreground is taken up by an ancient recording of a lyric soprano who warbles alongside the others to the finale. Other tracks encompass finer instrumental input from saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Maurizio Moscatelli, pianist James Boston, bassist Mattia Borraccetti and drummers Luca Orselli or Michele Sperandio as well as the leader. A trio of notable tracks illustrates Ciminari’s multiple skills. “Narni Underground”, with its tremolo theme balanced between guitar and keyboards could be West Coast Jazz played by a calliope and an accordion. “El Serpiente’ could be described as a menacing mambo with pumping guitar and bass vibrations carrying the exposition forward as woodwind bites and keyboard clips try to fragment it. The piece ends logically, yet proves its distinct modernity by eliminating the expected final beat. A martial beat is present on “ForNiche”. But it has to share space with metallic signals that appear to arrive from outer space. It may have a Metal tinge, but it ends logically after dancing group movement.

Further removed from Jazz and Improvised music than both these ensembles probably realize, they still elaborate how Pop-Jazz-Rock and Improv mixtures can sound.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Xerai: 1. Ljoom 2. Kurtzea 3. Powerhouse 4. Adheit

Personnel: Xerai: Fernando Ulzión (soprano and alto saxophones); Mikel Vega (guitar and effects); Txemi Artigas (electric bass); Iker Arrazola (drums) and Joxean Rivas (drums, electronics and vocals)

Track Listing: Fried: 1. Pizzammano*$ 2. Spiced Amygdala#+ 3. Narni Underground*+ 4. El Serpiente+ 5. How I Feel Today$ 6. Psalm^+ 7. ForNiche%$ 8. Mr. Distraction$ 9. A Woman

Personnel: Fried: Maurizio Moscatelli (alto saxophone*, bass clarinet%, flute#); James Boston (piano#, electric piano^); Matteo Ciminari (guitar, keyboards, Theremin); Mattia Borraccetti (bass); Luca Orselli$ or Michele Sperandio+ (drums)