MARTIN ARCHER: Heritage and ringtones
(Discus Music. Discus 18CD)

I first came into contact with Sheffield based Discus Music via Martin Archer's excellent English Commonflowers cd which features his multi-instrumental talents alongside other individuals with leanings towards jazz, free improvisation and certain elements of the so-called Canterbury sound of the early seventies. But there is more to it than that, of course, and despite working with many of the same like-minded souls no two cds are quite alike.

This latest completes a trilogy that began in 1995 with Ghost lily cascade
and reflects an interest in certain opposites, such as, old v new, melody v noise, tradition v experiment. So there are tracks that draw on Archer's heritage and then there are his Ringtone pieces, all of which mix these oppositions to varying effect.

The abstractions from his musical heritage range from Duke Ellington through the English folk tradition of Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs and on to the jazz/prog rock of Soft Machine, naturally, and Magma. A fairly broad sweep then. His take on Ellington's 'Come Sunday' is breathtakingly simple and returns the melody to me, having heard so many improvisations around it. His sopranino sax is clear and pure and could have come straight from an earlier English music tradition rather than the spiritual one the Duke drew on.

When taking on Jansch's 'It Don't Bother Me' he again uses the sax eloquently to unfold the melody but this time it is set against a violent electronic clash which interrupts and, for me, doesn't add much. From the Anne Briggs songbook he's chosen 'Wishing Well' and presents the melody in same uncluttered manner with some acoustic guitar and a more restrained electronic thunder which, this time, suits the mood of the piece.

His 'Angelus Vander' refers to Christian Vander, the great French drummer and leader of Magma, its relentless forward motion and insistent percussion sounding like an update on the band's original sound. It mixes the urgent repetitions of piano with free improvisation, all elements that, at one time or another were present in Magma.  In a different vein Julie Cole sings the spare but moving traditional song 'Let No Man Steal Your Time', Archer having altered the original 'thyme' to contrast with the song's era and the present 'age in which everyone's life is being filled up with crap'.

The 'ringtone' pieces bring together other diverse musical aspects that continue to occupy Archer and friends. For instance, Rhodri Jones' harp and Simon H Fell's double bass play composed lines amid violectronic improvisations before clarinets and bells are brought into the mix. Then on 'Ringtone 2' Tim Cole's acoustic guitar ripples melodically against the more frayed tones of the Casio keyboard with its fuzzy electric guitar sounds.  The piece develops more freely with the harp and bass joined by an array of percussion from Ingar Zach.

There is an unusual mingling of heritage and contemporary sound on 'Ringtone 3' where Archer and Masayo Asahara have their rendering of an Anne Briggs song processed into an eerily distorted and disembodied duet. This segues into 'Ringstone' a evocation of a 'bleak reservoir' on the moors near Halifax with winds whipping across stone and black water. It works, whether you know the territory or not.

But it isn't the sound of reservoirs or winds that close the album and gave me the title for this review. 'That Sheffield Sound' contains the somewhat retro noise of the Korg synthesiser whooping and somersaulting against  acoustic guitar and towards the end Archer  resurrects the sound of Karl Jenkins from around 'Soft Machine 6'. The stately theme echoes the opening of the cd and brings the music to a satisfying finish.

This is finely balanced recording that openly pays homage to musical influences as well as incorporating the developments that have sprung from them. But you wont find it in the racks of your local megastore or any other store for that matter. Discus Music is only available by mail order from PO Box 658, Sheffield, S10 3YR or check the website for more information about their releases. They're well worth seeking out.

Donnelly 2004