Orchestral Favourites

The third release from Martin Archer’s Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere is simply called 03 (DISCUS MUSIC 63CD), and comprises a generous twenty tracks spread across a double CD set. In every way this lives up to the precedents set by their previous releases, and I have to say I find this Orchestra one of Archer’s more successful operations, unfailingly producing joyous and exciting, innovative music. What the Orchestra produces is a mix of jazz, electronics, atmospheric drones, and experimental rock; all the music is created through a combination of methods and techniques, including improvisation, composition, scored arrangements, and studio post-production and editing; one senses a holistic approach to making music, a start-to-finish process where no detail is left unattended. You can tell Archer is proud of all this, and I expect the players are too; no wonder he feels compelled to publish so much of the material, but even at this gargantuan length there is no sense of excess or “sprawl” which the CD format so often allows. If I’m reading the press notes correctly, these pieces began life as rhythm tracks: drum and bass parts recorded first, on top of which were dubbed a day’s worth of studio improvisations from the players. A credible working method, one I think which has been common in pop and rock records since the 1980s – Peter Gabriel was just one proponent of this “patchwork” method, I believe. This particular collection of the Orchestra has been “cooking” in the studio since 2015, an index of the meticulous care Archer puts into these projects.

The Orchestra create such a grandiose sound that I’m always surprised when I read the personnel roster and find there are only seven players credited – although admittedly there are found guest players listed too. This is a commonplace remark for me, but the big sound of this record easily matches records made by forbears such as the Arkestra, Gil Evans, or Keith Tippett’s Centipede. The Canadian experimenters in Sick Boss (see here) could learn something from Archer’s evident facility with marshalling and managing his forces, particularly in learning how to make improvisation work for you (instead of producing an untidy melange of flavours, as Sick Boss do). Alongside Archer for this trip are his long-standing electronics partner, Chris Bywater; drummer Steve Dinsdale, violinist Yvonne Magda, Walt Shaw on percussion, electronics, and voice; Terry Todd on bass guitar; and frostlake on voice, electronics and viola. One thing I’m noticing on today’s spin is that there aren’t really any clearly defined “solo” spots for any of these talented musicians, one area in which Archer’s ideas build on the conventions of jazz and advance the music. The idea seems to be to create a homogeneous blend of sounds and continuous stream of beautifulness, yet the instruments are still identifiable and clear. To a large extent the notion of working to scored charts and arrangements also seems to have been relaxed, in favour of allowing the music to emerge organically (sorry, there’s no other way of saying it) as a force on its own terms. But I’ll stop now before we start trotting out the usual Teo Macero and Electric Miles comparisons.

Once again I find the cover art both aesthetically ugly and visually unrepresentative of the album’s contents. It was created by band member Walt Shaw. It’s a detail from a painting called ‘Cellular’. I find the colours excessive, the gestures random, the combinations lacking in taste. There seems to be some structure underneath the quasi-Pollock splurges and splashes of paint, but the vague arch-shaped form we can make out is weak and unformed. However, I suppose it conveys something about the mix of structure and free-form playing which the Orchestra deliver. And the title ‘Cellular’ aligns with the track titles to some degree, most of which refer to astronomical phenomena or scientific observations made under the microscope. Cover art aside, another vastly entertaining and well-made record which will not disappoint when purchased. From 8th June 2017.

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