May 1998 – album reviews – Blowpipe’s ‘Pendulum’ (“half given over to Blowpipe’s previous grace, half to a new and more aggressive club attack”)

18 May

Blowpipe: 'Pendulum'

Blowpipe: ‘Pendulum’

In jazz, things move on, and Blowpipe are no exception to this. Father-and-son brass-and-reed players Robin and Andrew Blick joined forces last year, making a mark for themselves last year at the point between hips and heads for their own spin on jazz-meets-clubland, sliding in alongside acid jazz with something a little more sophisticated and challenging.

The enthralling ‘First Circle‘ was the outcome: a rich and rewarding chill-out-and-expand intertwining of busily-bubbling electronica with old-school jazz conversation. Alongside guitarist Paul Reeson and the remarkable electronic sound-weaver Stephen Watkins, the Blicks set up a heartfelt and fertile union of jazz expression and latter-day dance-floor pulse, a tapestry of burbling intelligent techno, deft horn dialogue and fluent electro-acoustic textures. It was a joy to listen to, and its success has been recognised in one direction, at least.

‘Pendulum’ (a hot-on-the-heels follow up to ‘First Circle’) comes after Blowpipe’s deeper welcome into the ongoing club revolution – they’ve played on the new album by drum’n’bass pioneer Grooverider – and a big line-up shake-up. Whether burnt, inquisitive or disillusioned, the Blicks have opted to change the band’s instrumental chemistry. Blowpipe’s armoury of blowables (which already featured the Blicks’ trumpets, saxes, assorted horns and abused pipework) has been expanded by the addition of Nick Reynolds’ harmonica; they’ve also added a steady bass player in Tom Harrison; and there are frequent guest appearances (and stronger links to the jazz world) from saxophonist/flautist John Burgess of the Harry Beckett band and the Tom Bancroft Orchestra. But most crucially, both Reeson and Watkins are now out of the picture (apparently, halfway through recording). Consequently, while half of ‘Pendulum’ is given over to Blowpipe’s previous acoustic/ambient/electronica grace, the other half is shaped by a new and more aggressive club attack.

Of the old school stuff, Airport Woman is the most graceful: a mass of beat-free, blurring big spaces: back-and-forth cello loops, rainy-night muted trumpets, glows of soprano sax and a brief return from Paul Reeson. The Spell is Broken is wrapped in a backwards bassy ostinato (padded up by Tycho Andrews’ wah-guitar) like an orchestra in a North Sea fog, thick hazy air through which Andrew Blick’s trumpet clarion cuts like a lone lighthouse beam. Muting down and vague-ening in the heavy atmosphere, it gently illuminates (above the clanking guitar rhythm and the creak-crunching sonics).

However, this album’s signature is definitely made by the harder breed of Blowpipe pieces, by the post-Grooverider drum’n’bass influences. This could have been a good thing, given that music’s ferociously intelligent, toppy rhythmic attack: the bebop of the club scene. But in practice? Um… maybe not.

The main problem is a loss of that crucial Blowpipe balance. Neither of Stephen Watkins’ on/off successors (Patrick Mosley and Mike Servent) possess any of his subtlety, meaning that the detailed electronic textures of ‘Full Circle’ have been overturned in favour of synth washes and more blatant beats. And while the Blicks remain as eloquent as ever, Nick Reynolds’ harmonica virtuosity is of the tinny, bullying breed: a soulless Mark Feltham cop. Sometimes the new marriage is a happy one, as on Avanti’s drowsy harmonica patina and cloudy brass blankets, mixing it up with breakbeats, Harrison’s Bootsy bass, and Andrew’s cold trumpet motif. But when it’s at its worst, the Blicks seem sidelined within their own project, locked down in the cages of snare drum.

The analogue gut gurgles and video games blippery of Usurper work quite well, as Reynolds’ sharp harmonica riffs mingle with fluent fluttering sax and muted trumpet. But Unravel’s tight fast rattle and saurian bass quakes are overcome by the belting raucous harmonica and brass. Robin Blick’s soprano scribbles too frantically, Andrew’s echoed trumpet sounds busy and sour. The raw power of Scorched Earth’s distorted breakbeat and Harrison Wobble-y bassline can’t make up for the yammering, overbearing harmonica overkill: Reynolds blowing flatulently all over the Blicks’ bitty chips of sax and trumpet and Katherine Blake’s skidding tremolo violin. And School Disco (working title or what?) is just clodhopping: a flatfooted stomp which sounds like it was recorded in an underpass. John Burgess’ guesting flute fights to keep grace going against the dirty swathes of distorted harmonica.

When Reynolds is kept on a tighter leash, things work out much better. On the climactic Phoenix, for example, where Burgess’ bass clarinet and Andrew’s dawning trumpet lines repeatedly criss-cross each other over didgeridoo droning and Robin’s sax hangings. Or on Pendulum itself, which uses power without clumsiness. Rising off a big Bonham-y stomp with overdriven trumpet and giant floppy bass, Robin laces in some ascending saxes and curtains of brass. There’s a guest tenor scrawl from John Burgess: then, amid the whale-song trumpets, an incongruous Scott Walker sample pops up to breathe in bluer air. “The little clocks stop ticking now…” Everything does stop ticking. Everything kicks off again. Marvellously perverse, and a particular highlight on an album which sometimes fails to live up to Blowpipe’s initial promise, reminding us of how good they can be once they’re back in focus.

Blowpipe: ‘Pendulum’
Robot Records, ROB 001 (5019148617297)
CD-only album
Released:
15th May 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand, or streamed.
Blowpipe online:
MySpace Amazon Music
Additional notes: Robin Blick now leads Blick Trio; Andrew Blick leads Gyratory System.
 

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