Somnambule - Writing About Music

The Electric Dr M and Spring Heel Jack

22nd May 2004, The Spitz

Despite an appearance at the London Jazz Festival in 2002, a number of interviews and a brilliant debut album, there remains something a little mysterious about Matthew Bourne. Perhaps it’s his intensity or his no bullshit attitude or the fact that he appeared to come out of nowhere with the release of the Electric Dr M album. The five-piece group take the stage and they look so familiar it’s as if they’ve stepped out of the group photograph on their cd sleeve – (one of the drummers appears to still be wearing the same hat). There’s a strong sense of shared purpose about the group, an impression underlined by Riaan Vosloo’s back turned to the audience and the intent, almost conspiratorial glances exchanged throughout the evening.

They begin to play in calm, slightly directionless waters before the current initiated by the two drummers, Dave Black and Sam Hobbs, catches and propels everyone rapidly forward. Despite a poorly mixed p.a. there’s a sense of a large beast, some kind of dinosaur lizard extracting itself from a muddy swamp and picking up speed as it reaches clear ground, its weight making the earth rumble as it goes. The two players conjure a clattering, exhilarating din reminiscent of a Brazilian marching band like Olodum. Chris Sharkey’s guitar and Bourne’s Fender Rhodes maintain holding patterns like circling planes awaiting landing instructions. After ten minutes or more the motive force of the first piece begins to dissipate and the hammered percussion patterns begin to unravel into a second becalmed passage.

Again the drummers initiate the way forward while the other players begin to spin hypnotic spiders’ webs and skeins over their percussive mesh. The net effect is of determined forward motion shaded with nightmarish overtones. The intensity of their progress is stoked by Bourne’s intense Fender workouts which are a combination of driven rhythmic figures and jabbed note clusters, during which his hands blur, such is the speed of his playing. The group gain momentum like the Flying Scotsman gathering speed on a long straight. At the next pause for breath there are some moments of pure ‘70s Fender bliss as Bourne duets with Vosloo. As the latter moves to his iBook the scene shifts to something like a beatless Boards of Canada interlude. When the drummers rejoin proceedings they conjure up blunted hiphop beats and the picture’s satisfyingly completed.

After a short interval the Electric Dr M return to the stage this time joined by Spring Heel Jack, the duo who have achieved a fairly high profile since their switch from breakbeat science to improv experimentation a couple of years ago. John Coxon seats himself at the right of the stage looking very much the scruffy guitarist dude with lank hair, striped tracksuit pants, loafers and gold chain. His partner in crime Ashley Wales stands at his table of tricks off the stage and right at the back. Would this be leftfield supergroup time? Coxon unhesitatingly gets down to business with a remarkable confidence which verges on insouciance as he reels off yowls and wah’ed up howls while maintaining a strong sense of rhythmic propulsion. The others quickly join the chase and it gradually becomes evident that Spring Heel Jack’s presence is acting as a disruptive catalyst, disruption here being a markedly good thing. The duo’s arrival had been met with some trepidation regarding the possible imposition of a forbidding template upon Bourne’s group. It turns out that they’re much too sensitive to context for this to occur and instead they join the fray as fellow combatants. They bring with them an enhanced sense of possibility, a greater potential for accident and therefore surprise. It feels like Bourne’s Flying Scotsman locomotive has left the rails but is ploughing on regardless, its progress now looser and less marshal. The quieter passages when the drummers drop out now feel denser and more focused, but their calmness is unsettled by grinding sounds courtesy of Ashley Wales. This is just the sort of contrary intervention so many DJs and laptop-wielders fail to risk, which makes it all the more welcome in this context.

After several complaints about the p.a. Bourne is eventually loud enough to be heard. The combined attack of the two groups in the second half has this listener grinning from ear to ear as a messy, funky, driven electric jazz ebbs and swells from one intense climax to the next. As Bourne’s and Coxon’s playing leads the way in rolling, roiling, rollicking fashion, the music is simultaneously kaleidscopic and intensely rhythmic. There are theories to be developed about the aspects and influences of breakbeat culture both groups share – The Electric Dr M album could be described as the light of 1970s electric jazz shone through the prism of clubland, while Spring Heel Jack explored the tributaries and possibilities of breakbeat over seven albums between ’95 and 2000. Those theories can wait until the groups’ planned tour in the autumn. Tonight is apparently the first time they’ve played together and the result is a visceral pleasure. Roll on autumn.
Colin Buttimer
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