What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’ single
Sometimes you can come across simple treasures hiding in the backroom. Dutch guitarist Niels Bakx, Sicilian drummer Raphael Lanthaler and Tyrolean bass player Agostino Collura are part of that under-appreciated swirl of humble, talented international musicians who fly in, settle down and quietly underpin bands in London, as in many big cities. People like these plug away behind the people with the big ideas and the knack for fronting. They’re the ones who finesse the roughness, who add the musical depth and the polish which brings shine and sophistication to performance. And sometimes, they secretly bring more.
Individually, each of these three have clearly got the chops and the temperament to keep themselves in demand with songwriters (Agostino plays with Anna Waldmann’s band The Cry Baby, Niels and Raphael back Charlotte Eriksson in The Glass Child), embedded in soul collectives (Agostino’s work with Retrospective For Love) and driving mixed groove-band (Raphael’s Snail Trail). Together, though, Niels, Raphael and Agostino are something else.
As What?!, they’re an assured and formidable unit; an airy, confident groove-trio audibly revelling in their flexibility and their knack for carefully-sprung timing. On spec, there’s nothing particularly unusual in what they do. Enough years spent plugging away at sessions and keeping punters happy with funk, soul, jazz and reggae tunes have made them experts in warm, sunny, foot-moving musicality: but it’s what’s beyond the blueprint that’s interesting.
Their debut single Tikka Masala (named, consciously or not, after a meal made up on the spot to keep British customers happy) is a sweet-natured hall-of-mirrors groove, light and slinky. There’s reggae in it, thanks to Raphael’s displaced bass drum taps, his tight-tuned tom rattles and Niel’s skinny-supple rhythm guitar. There’s funk in the warm spaces between strokes and beats. There’s jazz in everything, from the little golden runs of licks to the turnarounds to the feel that the rhythms are to be flung from hand to hand, danced over, teased and tag-teamed around. There are subtle refractions, interruptions of rhythm and key, that make you think briefly of progressive rock at its least bombastic and most aware. There are also flares of hard rock when all three musicians line up under a suddenly roaring guitar and suddenly start jabbing together ahead of the beat.
What’s really special about it is their complete control over the music. Their discipline is absolute but relaxed, with the feel that at any time they could shift rhythm, speed, genre back and forth in a moment, and yet not drop a single thing along the way. There are no self-conscious cut-ups in What?!’s music – no need to deconstruct. Why should there be when they’re masters of structure? – so much that if you flipped Tikka Masala around and spun it backwards it would keep every bit of its symmetry and bounce. For a demonstration of this, play the bonus track Alasam Akkit as that’s exactly what that is – a backwards-play of the A-side which sounds almost as good as the forwards version. A backwards-play which you can still dance to. Remarkable.
Exactly what this leads to, I’m not sure. Perhaps the outcome is that What?! set themselves up as a twenty-first century Sly and Robbie-plus-one. Perhaps they remain a supremely-accomplished hobby band, something which the trio engage in when they’re not otherwise employed keeping other people happy. Or do they push ahead as self-sufficient instrumentalists, seeing how far they can push, stretch and double-feint their masterful musicality? The only thing I can be sure of is that, whenever they do get together, all ways – for those moments – are open; and it’s tremendously refreshing.
What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’
What?! (self-released) (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 11th October 2012
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