Tag Archives: Matt Fisher

February 2019 – upcoming London jazz gigs – LUME return for a Sloth Racket/Entropi double header (13th February); Jazz HerStory with Rosie Turton (21st February)

11 Feb

After a year away working on other things, the jazzwomen behind LUME are bringing it back to life. Hopping on board the fast-moving train of Kings Place’s ‘Venus Unwrapped‘ series (which I’ve really got to take a closer look at shortly), they’re presenting a double bill of two LUME spearhead acts: each led by one of the two LUME directors.

Baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts heads up and composes for Sloth Racket a scorching, heavy London-and-Manchester free jazz quintet in which she jousts and converses with Sam Andreae’s alto over a rhythm section of guitarist Anton Hunter, drummer Johnny Hunter and double bassist Seth Bennett (who aren’t actually that much bound by straight rhythm). Incorporating cells of conventionally-written material as well as graphic notation, Sloth Racket music is an aggregation of explosive rips, broken-up hums, forcefully lyrical micro-interjections and tense silences. They’re up to their third self-released album, ‘A Glorious Monster’.

Alto saxophonist Dee Byrne runs Entropi, in which she’s joined by trumpeter Andre Canniere, keyboardist Rebecca Nash, drummer Matt Fisher and bassist Olie Brice. Their music is built on discombobulated, mutually superimposed grooves and deconstructive/reconstructive melodic parts and harmonies, continually walking a wiggly line between falling apart and dancing together. Dee keeps everyone involved on supple, elastic musical leashes, letting them roam to the limits before gently reeling them back in.

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In a couple of weeks, the Jazz HerStory season out east at Poplar Union continues with a gig from Nerija trombonist Rosie Turton, now bandleading in her own right and with an EP, ‘Rosie’s 5ive’ out this year on Jazz Re:freshed Records. Following in the footsteps of two of Rosie’s biggest inspirations, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, her 5ive band (in which she’s joined by Johanna Burnheart on violin, Maria Chiara Argirò on piano, Twm Dylan on bass and Jake Long on drums) works around a sensually airy intertwining of Indian violin, trombone and electric piano, in which adventurous tunes effloresce and sway around light-on-their-feet rhythm grooves: a clever, flowing, flowery architecture.

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Venus Unwrapped: Entropi + Sloth Racket
Hall Two @ Kings Place, 90 York Way, Kings Cross, London, N1 9AG, England
Wednesday 13th March 2019, 8.00pm
– information here and here

Jazz HerStory presents:
Rosie Turton
Poplar Union, 2 Cotall Street, Poplar, London, E14 6TL, England
Thursday 21st February 2019, 7.30pm
– information here and here

June 2016 – upcoming London jazz – Entropi & Mike Chillingworth Trio at the Vortex, The Tommy Remon Quartet at Map (both on the 5th), and nearly ten hours of international LUME festival at the end of the month (26th)

31 May

There’s an imminent weekend of jazz coming up, plus an all-dayer at the end of the month…

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LUME presents:
Entropi & Mike Chillingworth Trio
Vortex Jazz Club, 11 Gillett Street, N16 8JH.
Sunday 5th June 2016, 7.30pm
more information

“To round off this season of LUME at The Vortex, we’ve got an exciting double bill of new and improvised music.

Entropi (photo by Carl Hyde)

Entropi (photo by Carl Hyde)

Entropi is a vehicle for Dee Byrne‘s ‘space-jazz’ compositions, exploring a narrative of life-pondering, stargazing and risk-taking. Juggling order and chaos, composition and improvisation, the group takes listeners on a journey with compelling group interplay, strong themes, open-ended improvisation, dark grooves and interweaving melodic textures. The ensemble comprises Dee (on alto saxophone), trumpeter Andre Canniere, keyboardist Rebecca Nash, drummer Matt Fisher and bassist Olie Brice. Having performed live together for some time, the band has achieved a striking empathy and freedom to take risks. Their debut album ‘New Era’ was released on the F-IRE Presents label in June 2015, with their second album to come on Whirlwind Recordings in 2017.

Mike Chillingworth

Mike Chillingworth

“We are really looking forward to welcoming alto saxophonist and composer Mike Chillingworth and his trio. In his own words:

“‘I formed this trio last year as a means to play music with an emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation. I have another project, a septet, which is all about detailed written compositions. This trio is the antidote to that. I will be performing with two fantastic improvisers: US drum legend Jeff Williams (who has played with everybody, including two of my favourite saxophonists Joe Lovano and Stan Getz) and Conor Chaplin on bass (who plays in many of the most exciting new UK bands at of the moment).

“I often deliberately avoid choosing repertoire for a gig until the last moment, often writing new tunes in the days leading up to a performance, or taking ideas from whatever I happen to be listening to at the time. Whatever we choose to play on this occasion the emphasis will be on improvising, communicating, listening and exploring together.'”

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On the same night, you’ve also got the chance to check out some new start-of-career talent at one of London’s nicest small venues – the Map Studio Café, tucked away in the Kentish Town side-streets. I’ve wanted to talk about this place since discovering it on a random stroll after a swimming session at the Prince of Wales Baths, when its easygoing atmosphere and hopeful spirit provided an ideal wind-down opportunity: the compact performance space upstairs and the talk of a built-in recording studio piqued my interest, and this week’s gig gives me something solid to plug…

Map Studio Café presents:
The Tommy Remon Quartet
Map Studio Café, 46 Grafton Road, Kentish Town, London, NW5 3DU, England
Sunday 5th June 2016, 8.00pm
more information

Tommy Remon, 2016

Tommy Remon, 2016

Led by up-and-coming guitarist Tommy Remon, this quartet has emerged from the Tomorrow’s Warriors Organisation, which encourages young British jazz talent (focussing on people from the African diaspora, with an additional focus on encouraging girls and women into the form). Currently playing hard bop and modal tunes from the jazz canon, as well as their own original compositions, the band are at a self-confessed early stage despite their collective musical strength, and are hungry to develop further insight and breadth. Now, however, is the ideal time to catch them while they’re young, hungry and open, and about to start on their first significant expansion.

The other members of the band are double bass player Rio Kai (who’s played with Jason Yarde and Alex Garnett), drummer Patrick Boyle (Tomorrow’s Warriors Big Band, Nathaniel Facey) – both of whom previously worked with Tommy in a trio – and trumpeter Dylan Jones, who’s still an undergraduate at Trinity Laban, but is already a member of EZRA Collective. Between them, the band members have also worked with Tomorrow’s Warriors founder Gary Crosby, Nérija, Binker Golding and Kokoroko.

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Three weeks later we’ll be back with LUME, who are summarising their current state of play via their first festival, which they successfully crowdfunded following an appeal earlier in the year (with backup from Arts Council England, and the Austrian Cultural Forum). It looks as if it’s going to be both a broad and a familial occasion, with many LUME regulars reappearing in a variety of bands and contexts, with strong playing contributions from the LUME organisers themselves, and with a substantial presence as regards the female jazz musicians which LUME in part encourages (just over a quarter of the twenty-seven players involved are women, most of them also being group leaders, co-leaders and composers). Tickets are limited and are going on sale at the start of June.

LUME Festival 2016

LUME presents:
LUME Festival: Word Of Moth + Ant Traditions + Hot Beef Three + Little Church + Kjær/Musson/Marshall + Blueblut + Article XI
IKLECTIK, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, Waterloo, London, SE1 7LG, England
Sunday 26th June 2016, 1.00pm-10.30pm
more information

  • The day’s headliners are Word Of Moth, the London-based collaborative quartet which includes the two LUME founders on saxophones (Dee Byrne on alto, Cath Roberts on baritone) alongside Seth Bennett (bass) and Tom Greenhalgh (drums).
  • Article XI is a freewheeling large ensemble led by guitarist Anton Hunter, originally put together for the 2014 Manchester Jazz Festival but deemed too good not to continue with. Mingling free improvisation with tightly-composed contrapuntal writing, it also features Oliver Dover (alto sax, also of Saxoctopus and many others), Tom Ward (tenor sax), Cath Roberts (baritone sax), Johnny Hunter (drums), Seth Bennett (bass), Graham South and Nick Walters (trumpets), and Tullis Rennie and Richard Foote (trombones).
  • Vienna-based Blueblut was founded by three musical powerhouses, famous in their respective spheres of jazz, electronic and avant-rock music. The band have the intensity of rock, the space and openness of electronica and the razor-sharp precision and wild improvisation of jazz. Featuring Led Bib’s Mark Holub on drums, Pamela Stickney on theremin and Chris Janka (flying machine maker, sound engineer, automata creator and Viennese Caractacus Potts figure) on guitar and overall production.
  • Musson/Kjær/Marshall are a fantastic London trio of committed European-scene improvisers and extended-technique instrumentalists, all of whom happen to be female: Rachel Musson (tenor sax), Julie Kjær (alto sax) and Hannah Marshall (cello).
  • Little Church are a Birmingham-based fusion quartet, playing compositions both from and inspired by Miles Davis’ electric period. Led by keyboard player David Austin Grey, the rest of the band is made up from Aaron Diaz (trumpet), Rachael Cohen (alto sax), Chris Mapp (double bass, bass guitar and electronics) and Tymek Joswiak (drums). Little Church fuses live acoustic instruments with synthesizers and electronics to produce a wonderfully ambient soundscape, which moves from meditative and hypnotising through to driving and funky with a seamless fluidity.
  • Hot Beef Three brings some of Leeds’ finest improvisers together: saxophonist Oliver Dover (see above),  guitarist Craig Scott (Ikestra, Craig Scott’s Lobotomy) and drummer Andrew Lisle. (All three already play together as part of Leeds’ notorious eclecti-chaos band Shatner’s Bassoon.)
  • Ant Traditions are a top-notch Manchester improv duo featuring Adam Fairhall (toy pianos) and Dave Birchall (electric guitar).

There’s a sonic buffet provided below to keep you happy until the end of June:


March 2016 – upcoming gigs – Phil Robson Organ Trio UK tour; Phil Robson and Christine Tobin projects debut in New York; London jazz judders with West Hill Blast Quartet, Apocalypse Jazz Unit, Øyeblikk and a Tom Ward/Adam Fairhall/Olie Brice/Andrew Lisle quartet.

2 Mar

Phil Robson Organ Trio, UK tour, March 2016

I have no idea what this has to do with the Phil Robson Organ Trio…

Despite having recently followed many a London jazzman’s dream and relocated to New York, (alongside his wife and collaborator, singer Christine Tobin), Phil Robson hasn’t forgotten his home country. Best known as guitarist for long-lived British post-bop quartet Partisans, he’s also followed a four-album solo career which seems to have developed into another British-based full band project, the Phil Robson Organ Trio. The Trio (Phil plus Partisans drummer Gene Calderazzo and British Hammond organ ace Ross Stanley) are embarking on a short early-March tour of England and Wales, playing music from last year’s acclaimed album ‘The Cut Off Point‘ (on Whirlwind Recordings). I’ve only heard bits of it, but what I’ve heard suggests a dancing, cleverly-constructed yet liberated skein of jazz: drawing on a rock-based solidity (and perhaps a little bit of Phil’s long-ago hard rock’n’metal beginnings) while also enjoying the kind of mischievous, warm, ever-shifting tip-and-a-wink chord sequences thrown into British jazz during the ‘80s and ‘90s by the Loose Tubes school. See what you think…


Dates are as follows:

Phil is back in New York at the end of the month, where he’ll be unveiling a new project.

Phil Robson's Icicle Architects + Christine Tobin Duo, 30th March 2016

Taking their name from one of Phil’s Partisans tune, Icicle Architects feature veteran New York drummer Adam Nussbaum (who’s played with Gil Evans, Carla Bley, Johns Schofield and Abercrombie, Michael Brecker and too many others to list), ‘Saturday Night Live’ bass player James Genus and saxophonist Donny McCaslin (bandleader, Steps Ahead/Dave Douglas alumnus and most recently an art-rock darling due to his band’s prominent contributions to David Bowie’s jazz-steeped swansong ‘Blackstar’). There’s not much information on what they’re intending to do, so for now you’ll just have to imagine Phil’s tunes fed through a New York sensibility and multiple generations of exploring the noise: post bop, free jazz, fusion and avant-garde.

Christine Tobin will be playing the same gig as a voice-and-piano duo with pianist Kevin Hays (of the Sangha Quartet, Bill Stewart Trio, John Scofield Quiet Band and plenty more). Again, there’s not much information on this but Christine can always be relied upon to draw multiple ideas and traditions into her world of song, working her low-key but flexible voice across originals, improvisations or interpretations (mingling tones and echoes of Leonard Cohen, Betty Carter, Joni Mitchell and Cassandra Wilson, plus influences from her native Ireland such as the Yeats poems which underpinned her 2012 album ‘Sailing To Byzantium’).

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Back in London, and back to this coming weekend…

West Hill Blast Quartet + Apocalypse Jazz Unit, 5th March 2016

Apocalypse Jazz Unit
Hundred Years Gallery, 13 pearson Street, Hoxton, London, E2 8JD, England
Friday 5th March 2016, 7.30pm
more information

“The inimitable Apocalypse Jazz Unit was conceived in 2012 as a solo recording project by saxophonist Rick Jensen and has since transmogrified into a live band with a variety of equally deranged improvisers. Since April 2013 Apocalypse Jazz Unit has been a tornado of activity, releasing forty digital albums whilst bringing experimental mayhem, eclecticism and a sense of humour to their countless performances. The band currently lines up Rick on tenor saxophone, clarinet, harmonica horn and monotron with David O’Connor (sopranino saxophone, flute), Thomas Tronich (alto saxophone) Paul Shearsmith (pocket trumpet, balaophone), Hywel Jones (trombone) and Rebecca Gleave (violin).”


Originally this gig was also going to feature Brighton’s West Hill Blast Quartet featuring trumpeter Daniel Spicer (a member of the improvising sextet Bolide and duo Mandarin Splashback, and performer of solo spoken word/poetry), saxophonist Ron Caines (a founder member of prog-psych group East of Eden), double bass player Gus Garside (a mainstay of Brighton’s Safehouse collective and a member of string trio Arc and duo Static Memories) and percussionist Andy Pyne (of The Black Neck Band Of The Common Loon, Medicine & Duty, Shrag and Kellar). Unfortunately, they’ve had to pull out due to illness, meaning that the Apocalypse Jazz Unit is going to step up with an extended set. (Here’s a taste of the Quartet anyway…)


Rick Jensen promises “an epic display of transcendental jazz of… well… apocalyptic proportions. What you will get is the largest version yet of the band and it’ll also be the last gig I organise for a while due to my impending unemployment and the need to watch my money, so please do come and support this one…” (For me, this one would be worth attending if only to find out what some of those instruments Rick and Paul are playing are.)

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And there’s time to mention the latest LUME gig…

LUME presents:
Tom Ward/Adam Fairhall/Olie Brice/Andrew Lisle + Øyeblikk
The Vortex Jazz Club, 11 Gillett Square, Dalston, London, N16 8AZ, England
Sunday 6th March 2016, 7.30pm
more information

“For our next gig at the Vortex we are excited to present two new collaborations! Come and hear some fresh new orginal and improvised music!

Adam Fairhall and Tom Ward, 2015

This night features the debut performance of a new group featuring four highly creative improvisers who have appeared at LUME in other projects, but have never played all together. Tom Ward (alto sax, bass clarinet, flute) and Adam Fairhall (piano) had their names drawn out of the hat at our randomised free improvisation night last Summer, and following this initial encounter (a toy piano and bass clarinet duo) they decided to get a band together with double bass player Olie Brice and drummer Andrew Lisle. The quartet will play new music by the bandmembers, starting from a few common reference points. The band will employ a flexible approach to harmony and form, including investigating negative harmony and stretching out with extended improvisations. Influences include the Greg Osby ‘Banned In New York’ album with Jason Moran, the ‘Monk’s Casino’ album with Alexander von Schlippenbach and Rudi Mahall, and Fieldwork with Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey.

Øyeblikk, 2016

The two members of Øyeblikk – Dee Byrne (alto saxophone/electronics) and Ed Riches (guitar/electronics) – met in 2008. They have collaborated in various projects such as improvising sextet Zonica (Gareth Lockrane, Xantone Blacq, Elliot Galvin, Tom McCredie, Pat Davey) and more recently as an improvising duo using electronics. Tonight they will be joined by drummer/percussionist Matt Fisher who plays in Dee’s band Entropi. Øyeblikk (‘moment’ in Norwegian) describes the ethos of the project: a spontaneous narrative of soundscapes, riffs and themes taking the listener on a cosmic, sonic adventure. The title Øyeblikk is a nod to the fact that both Ed and Dee have a connection with Scandinavia, Dee lived in Stockholm for seven years and Ed spent a part of his childhood in Norway.”

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More gig news to follow…

January 2001 – mini-album reviews – The Servant’s ‘With the Invisible’ (“art gets made, covertly, in rush-hour”)

22 Jan
The Servant: 'With the Invisible'

The Servant: ‘With the Invisible’

On last year’s ‘Mathematics’, Dan Black (the voice, face and most of the limbs of The Servant) lifted the lid on a peculiar pop world, fascinated by the chasms between reality and imagination and between formal order and animal madness. ‘Mathematics’ was a dance of numbers, monkeys and peculiar people-watching, jamming in suspicions of murder, deranged Bunuel-ish aristocrats and shopping mall alienation. Unusually, its sonic palette was just as wild as its subject matter. It was as chopped-up and mercurial as it was catchy and danceable, emphasising Dan’s omnivorous sampler as much as his peculiar sneer (thin and venomous, but in its way the wildest and most devil-may-care British pop vocal this side of Billy Mackenzie).

With Chris Burrows now recruited to the project to beef up the guitars, ‘With the Invisible’ hints at being a more conventional follow-up to ‘Mathematics’. In many ways, it is. It’s less extreme, more aligned towards the needs of a guitar band: the sounds are much less wild and varied, with less cunningness required to ensure the gelling of the musical ingredients. Hell, it could almost be Britpop; albeit at the Pulp end as opposed to the Shed Seven end. But I’m not convinced that this means Dan Black has shot his artistic wad. In fact, I’ve a suspicion that where ‘Mathematics’ rattled the cage of the fantastical, ‘With the Invisible’ (right down to the title) documents Dan’s interaction with the everyday – the office jobs, adverts, commuter rushes, conspicuous consumption and car ownership that most of us take on continually and take for granted.

Certainly ‘Biro’ is about sulking in an office, your mind scrabbling desperately for escape either in desk-based sculpture, the limited options of the office party (“wet-look in my hair?”) or violent fantasies – “I just killed my new boss / shut that cock up, with a rock, / non-stop in his face, / and what a smug face.” Inevitably, it concludes “it’s plain to you and it’s plain to me, / there’s nothing for you and there’s nothing for me,” but it has a colourful time getting there.

With that admitted, the next question is how to live under those circumstances, if at all. The brass-pumping ‘Milk Chocolate’ is a rebellion, which finds Dan capering under the motorway next to a blazing bonfire. Systematically, he’s burning all of his possessions from hi-fi to furniture right down to his clothes, trying to shake off the packaging of the modern world. But with “milk chocolate pumping through my heart” the contamination of consumption has already reached to the core of him, leaving him with the logical conclusion of joining his own trash on the fire.

Or not. The bodypopping, Prince-like, bubblegum funk of ‘In a Public Place’ suggests an accommodation, even a brainwave to slake that thirst for stimulation. Art gets made, covertly, in rush-hour. “Among stumbling commuters / I think about each step, / not where I’m trying to get.. / In a limited space, / I try to find a cube for me. / With suble changes of pace, / I move through various densities.” There’s even peace to be found – “watching people move, / they appear to groove / with the invisible.”

For a while, our man seems happy in a formal suit and in step with this world. By the time the White Town-ish synth pop of ‘Driving at Night’ shows up – deliberately tidy – he’s possibly taken it too far. “I try hard to be like I’m in an advert / as we descend upon upon the M1.” Before long, though, The Servant are back to poking holes in the fabric of the world again, trying to expose the workings. In the Jam-versus-hip-hop bust of ‘The Entire Universe’, this happens via rampant, tongue-in-cheek paranoia. “How can I trust my own memory? / Did what I thought I saw before occur?” yammers Dan, almost with relief, as flute shrieks and silvery Indian strings zing off the barking guitars. “How can I trust my own family? / Maybe they’ve lied for years to me.”

By the finale, ‘She Cursed Me’, the music is heading back towards the heady mix of sounds that characterised ‘Mathematics’: ironic tinges mixing with intimate pastiche, music box interludes, bright dreamy shifts of mood and texture with a sharp mind manipulating them. And Dan’s narration has moved well clear of city rules, looking backwards to villagey beginnings, the first stirrings of curiosity (“she cursed me with impatience / and I need to follow clouds,”) and the repercussions of actions (“our conversations by the pond / I wonder if they’re still going on – / swimming on the gluey pool, / around the church and up to the school.”)

The Servant are still marching to their own inner promptings; still bouncing on the shock of impulse. Still the colourful alien probe that’s embedded in the mundane. Keep watching.

The Servant: ‘With the Invisible’
Splinter Recordings, SP003CD (5 038622 102326)
CD-only mini-album
22nd January 2001
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand; stream from last.fm.
The Servant online:
Homepage Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) The Servant split up in 2007. Dan Black moved on to a solo career; Trevor Sharpe has played in Deadcuts.

April 2000 – mini-album reviews – The Servant’s ‘Mathematics’ (“cleverly constructed songs which nonetheless loll open like burgled cupboards, disarranged and pried into”)

24 Apr
The Servant: 'Mathematics'

The Servant: ‘Mathematics’

To realise just how good The Servant are, you have to look back a few years and see just how bad they could have been. Back to 1990s Swinging London and the age of the Young British Artists: paint, press and garbage flying everywhere while Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and co. latched onto the multi-media cow and deliriously milked it for all it was worth. Restaurant tie-ins, TV shows, crappy crazy-golf designs… Anything which took the piss, got attention, built the empire.

British pop – siamese-twinned to art-school anyway – didn’t escape this cross-media surge. A slew of appalling artist/band tie-ins tumbled into the world. Big Bottom, Fat Les (or anything else in which Alex James cosied up to fellow Goldsmiths’ alumni). Various one-of/fuck-offs with conceptual artists barging onstage, messing around or just singing badly in the name of deconstruction or situationism. The original spark for this was Minty, the performance-art-cum-pop band assembled by the late Leigh Bowery – a genius costumier, an infamous artist’s model, an indispensable link between conceptual art and gay clubbing, portraiture and pop trash.

Minty, though, was his one ignominious failure, remaining better known for Nicola Chapman’s transparent dresses (and for Bowery literally shitting on his audience at one fateful concert) than for music or vision. Noisomely cheesy in their calculated obscenity, their attention-grabbing stunts and their sherbety gargling squeak-pop, they left a couple of singles (the childish shock-pop stream of sneering abuse on Useless Man and the paper-thin, bored-with-it-all drone of That’s Nice) which still sometimes pop up in arty DJ sets to remind us all of what was putrid even before it was dead and buried. Two fatal errors doomed Minty. One was their assumption that calling themselves “artists” ensured that art (rather than amplified fads) would come through them; and the other was attempting to plaster conceptual art’s whims onto the surface of pop, like cheap multicoloured cladding.

Servant leader Dan Black – who, like his bandmates Matt Fisher and Trevor Sharpe, was once part of the Minty circus – has obviously learnt from this. With The Servant, Black is smart enough to work from the other way around this time: writing scratchy, catchy songs which actually work, and then twisting their vision from within. Certainly The Servant avoids Minty’s sub-Wildean, cripplingly trashy desire to celebrate the trivial and superficial. Instead of sloppy art-to-pop, ‘Mathematics’ is full of shrewd Bowie’n’Devo-esque pop-to-art. Cleverly constructed songs which nonetheless loll open like burgled cupboards, disarranged and pried into.

It’s constructive criminality, though. Vandalising pop with creative intent, layering it with pop-up samples, buggering about with the implications, enjoying the theatrical interplay of sounds. It’s also the truest British parallel to Beck yet. Dan slithers in and out of sketchy transparent personas; paralleling Beck’s American easiness with his own Home Counties fussiness, Beck’s quirky patchwork of ideas and soul-revue showmanship with a violent jarring of public and private universes and with arch music-hall wit.

Dan himself seems to be constantly hovering, saturnine, above the songs. He’s just that little bit smarter than the music – involved in it but not quite of it. Although his thin nasal sneer of a voice recalls his previous band, this time he’s made sure that his irony has something substantial to grip onto. Teased for his eccentric dancing skills (“an orang-outan body-popping… a monkey who is rocking”), he gleefully makes himself the butt of an old Darwinian joke. “Look darling, it’s our cousins. / Come in and meet the family. / We are eating. / Well, you must join us. / Come on dear, lay another place for the apes and the chimpanzees,” he sings, to the accompaniment of brittle white soul-funk as monkeys cackle feverishly behind him, and broken pianos spin into the breaks.

It’s not just the supercilious servility of the band’s name that’s suspicious. Messing around with perceptions is The Servant’s stock-in-trade. Tuneful and catchy the songs may be, but each one is a mass of elaborately layered confusion in sound and text. Instruments and sounds appear in the wrong places, or squeezed into unusual forms by hip-hop-era sonic tinkering; and airy lyrics are jostled by intrusive sounds. It seems right that Dripping On Your Maths (popper-fuelled disco rhythms mixed up with a particularly wilful string quartet) makes jumpy little attacks on correctness and rationality. “Hunched up poring over graphs – / don’t blink, / just think / of all things and their link,” sings Dan sardonically, like a rebel maths tutor watching his sweating pupil’s tidy equations succumb to chaos. “Is this what you studied for? / A kind of mime, from nought to nine…”

The Servant’s music is a colourful, disturbingly surreal puppet show, in Dan plays the role of head marionette as well as that of chief string- puller. At the same time, he’s violently shaking the scenery with whichever limb is free, in order to reveal the workings of this enclosed world. The masterstroke in this approach is Conversation. It rips off and flips over the infamous Kashmir riff as a starter, but that isn’t all that it flips over. Initially, a kitchen-sink drama (illicit love, a girl making secret trips to a payphone, the delaying of a promised call) promises to develop into a classic little story. Then Dan starts to dismantle it with a cool, sadistic science. “The girl from verse one / Does not exist / Sure, you can feel her hands, but she’s just an idea.”

Toying with both our impatience and that of the luckless, fictional heroine (“Don’t you find the waiting tough / Even when occupied by love / and all that kind of stuff?”), he’s also dropping heavy hints to us that he’s not only the narrator, but the feckless love interest. “The tragedy is that Gary’s me / and it’s 7.40…” When he brazenly admits “If you feel any pain, / well, I’m to blame,” it’s a multiple confession. It’s also a superbly heartless one, with the air of a man pushing models around on a strategy board, or an author invading his own story for reasons of control or revenge. Yet it also pokes hard at our own complicity in the tale, as readers; while helping everything along via a smashing, seductively slithery tune.

More authorial meddling comes free with the supermarket voyeurism of Tangled Up in Headphone Lead. Lazily people-watching from a mall cafe, Dan attempts to divine the personalities of strangers from disconnected clues and cues (rubber marks left by hot shoes, hands running pinlike across tins, peculiar walks). The result’s a distracted, disassociated love song in which the lovers never even meet, and in which affection, confusion and atmospherics become hopelessly intermingled. There’s romantic, summery acoustic guitar, yes; but there’s also alien booms of Scuba breath. Heavenly swells of synth jab jaggedly as Dan’s latest persona meanders from thought to dysfunctional thought: “I wonder how you feel. / I struggle with complex food.” Obviously, he’s a stranger here himself.

The other thrust in ‘Mathematics’ is the creation of artfully sinister images of England. This makes Dan Black the evil quad to the three other recent self-conscious bards of Blighty: Neil Hannon, Richard Larcombe and (the pre-’13’) Damon Albarn. Too Late is an effete-yet-violent English nightmare. It drowses in cello sounds and summery meanders, but it’s also encircled by thunderstorms and by Miranda Sex Garden’s gently menacing backing vocals. “I imported horses from Dubai,” drones the aristocratic narrator. “Like great white sharks, we rode around the local park.. / Like spraying paint we flew across pedestrians…” It’s a decorous rampage with a sticky end; a final fall that’s heralded by a genteel waltz.

If that’s macabre, Walking Through Gardens is positively disturbing. Any song that claims “when my wife died I was happy” (and which talks about a corpse buried in the backyard with the same concern that it shows regarding the installation of a barbeque) is never going to make it onto Our Tune. Blending with echoes of Fred West’s psychotic house-proud callousness and with the pomp of English gardening culture, chaos and horror break through the herbaceous borders. “We’re finally going to get a patio!” announces our hero. Triumphally sweet orchestras and brave trumpet greet the joyful news, but other music is also worming up to meet it: violent surges of drum’n’bass, claustrophobically oppressive bass synths, metallic dripping noises and a meat-mincer of a mix. It’s ‘Ground Force’ versus ‘Blue Velvet’, with Foetus as referee. Guess who’s winning.

Life’s what you make it, and The Servant make it decidedly strange. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had anyone in British pop toying with the paper moons, mining the flutters and lunges of the subconscious, with such wit and danger or with such cunning artfulness.

The Servant: ‘Mathematics’
Splinter Recordings, SP001CD (5 038622 101626)
CD-only mini-album
24th April 2000
Get it from: (2020 update) CD best obtained second-hand; stream from last.fm.
The Servant online:
Homepage Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) The Servant split up in 2007. Dan Black moved on to a solo career; Trevor Sharpe has played in Deadcuts.


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