Fred Frith & John Butcher: The Natural Order (Northern Spy Records)
The two veteran improvisors Fred Frith and John Butcher go head to head in this far-out and compelling collaboration, says Louder Than War’s Paul Margree.
What was it about last month’s landing by the tiny Philae probe on the lump of rock and ice that is Comet 67p that so enthralled us? The joy that this expedition, a decade in the making, was a definite, if qualified success? The eye-watering precision required to land a tiny metal box on a 2.5 mile wide, rubber-duck shaped lump of rock and ice that is hurtling through space at 11 miles per second? Or the strange optimism that data from this faraway object could shed light on how life started on our own planet millions of years ago?
I was transfixed by the emerging details of Philae’s bumpy landing, peering at my laptop screen at the beautiful and austere pictures it sent back of the comet’s surface. For a brief moment, science fiction became science fact.
John Butcher and Fred Frith’s latest collaboration, The Natural Order, was the perfect sonic backdrop to all this geeking out. The record’s rugged textures and densely layered combination of feedback, extended saxophone and guitar techniques and abstract noise were like an auditory mirror of the cracked and bumpy surfaces of the comet.
Released on Northern Spy, a label with immaculate underground credentials and an inspiring forward-looking attitude, The Natural Order documents a get together of these avant-garde veterans back in 2009. The duo had worked together before this – they’ve been playing live dates since 2001 – but this was their first studio meeting.
And it’s a corker, an intense hour-long jam edited into 10 rough-hewn tracks. There are no overdubs, yet thanks to both players’ commitment to opening up the range and possibilities of their instruments, they create works that are much more than the sum of their parts.
Butcher uses amplification, feedback and volume to transform his playing, creating vast sheets of feedback and abrasive noise one minute, almost silent breathy exhalations the next, before surprising us with gorgeously lyric twists of melody. You can hear this on Faults of His Feet, the fourth track on this record. It starts with a set of cutesy, cuckoo-like trills from Butcher, all the more playful for coming just after a particularly saw-toothed mesh of horn and guitar at the tail end of the preceding piece.
Widely acknowledged as a major figure in the second wave of British improvisation, Butcher expanded the beachhead established by players like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, turning their innovations inside out and, crucially, allowing digital technology to play a part in his ever-evolving musical practice.
The 13 minutes of Colour of an Eye – the centrepiece of this tumultuous recording – sees the duo locking horns with almost furious intent. At first, things seem dominated by Frith, all woolly guitar fuzz and wiry squiggles. But gradually Butcher emerges from the gunk, his brutal yodels calling forth more guitar wails from his axe man partner.
As things approach the five-minute mark, Frith settles into a surly throb, giving Butcher the chance to push out in all directions, a gas expanding to fill a space. His splutters and exhalations are gradually cradled by a descending guitar figure before things switch up a gear and the pair locks together for a series of dissonant sketches, each with a slightly different tonal mixture and balance of sound.
Butcher turned 60 this year, but he’s not resting on his laurels as he’s approached this venerable milestone. His recent work – this record, 2012’s Winter Gardens and his just-released trio with Burkhard Beins and Mark Wastell on Wastell’s own Confront Recordings to name but three highlights – are as good as anything he’s done.
Frith, too, brings majorly heavyweight vibes to the party. Like Butcher, he is another veteran of the swirling experimental firmament of the 1970s, emerging first as part of underground rockers Henry Cow, then as leader or key component of the Art Bears, Skeleton Crew, Massacre and Naked City, as well as collaborating with gurus like Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt and establishing himself as a paradigm shifting guitarist with releases such as 1974’s Guitar Solos.
For improvisational gigs like this, Frith tends to use his rudimentary homemade guitars, laid on a table and played with picks and found objects, as well as more conventional guitars, all of which are hooked up to an array of pedals and samplers. It pushes his technique in different directions, and perhaps more importantly for us listeners, broadens the sound palette available to him.
And this is what we get on The Natural Order, a mix of a kind of rusting colossus of echo (Dance First, Think Later), crazed shredding (on Butterflies of Vertigo) and sheer out-there alien dolphin wibbles (Turning Away in Time).
Frith’s guitar wrangling is compelling from the opening salvos of That Unforgettable Line – where he seems to combine a gritty distorted burr of chords with the splintered notes of beaten strings and some incredible planetary drones that sound like some kind of John Cale organ freak-out from White Light, White Heat-era Velvet Underground – all the way through to the weird loops and cutup strums of the record’s final piece, Accommodating the Mess.
Talking about these two improvisational geniuses separately is somewhat deceptive. The thing that’s so compelling about The Natural Order is the way that each players’ contribution merges with the other to form some unearthly composite. On The Welts, The Squeaks, The Belts, The Shrieks, you can tell that there’s a guitar and a saxophone, but their contributions – melodic, textural, dissonant, percussive – are so diffuse and intertwined that it feels like there’s just a single, multi-limbed player doing all this stuff.
We know now that the actual sounds of Comet 67P – thanks to recordings of its electromagnetic radiation – are more like some minimal electroacoustic exploration than the bristling atonality of Frith and Butcher at full pelt.
Yet that does nothing to diminish the wonder and strangeness of this record. This is a deep record. Out here on the perimeter, there are no stars. Just the sound of space. The space of sound.
The Comet 67P image was taken from the Rosetta satellite’s navigation camera, and is used courtesy of the European Space Agency. See more here.