I recently received an album from the Madwort Saxophone Quartet. They are anagrammatically named for the quartet's leader/composer, Tom Ward (of Porpoise Corpus fame. I think I saw them once, did they play at The Others? Either way, at the time of writing, I have the tenuous honour of being the last person to mention that band on twitter.). I wanted to use gears as a metaphor for this album, but gears are a horribly overused metaphor in music chat.
People often use gears - usually "well-oiled" - as a throwaway phrase to imply a group of musicians who work together impressively. Even more bizarrely, whether or not this is a good or bad thing depends on context. This largely misses the point of gears, leaving much scope to extend this metaphor beyond the reach of plausible readability. Which is precisely what I intend on doing.
For example, a section of the wikipedia entry on the design and manufacturing of gears - which will surely be deleted soon, as it is almost entirely without citation - points out that "cast iron, steel, brass and bronze are preferred for manufacturing metallic gears with cut teeth." That might as well have been the pull-quote for this review. The very material of the saxophone's body is a basic component of this album. At first listen, there is almost total timbral unity. Notwithstanding some very sparing use of extended techniques, the outer limits of these saxophones are left unexplored. While I have loved the increasing sonic variety of some artists I've been following, this group (almost by definition!) represents the opposite extreme.
The quartet's timbral unity is relative, though, as the differences between the players and instruments make this such a fascinating, mechanically imperfect album. Turning up the volume, we see right down into the brush-marks in the lacquer (detail so often obfuscated by live recordings - e.g. the Paris Saxophone Quartet's cavernous disc of Bach arrangements). The best example of this is on Mad Giant Bee, where the players duel in overlapping ranges before leaping and diving back into their own registers.
Another highlight for me is Islands in the Green, a rotating, never-resolving hymn. In my head, it's the organ voluntary in a village church so remote that nobody noticed when Jackie Mclean turned up about 3 minutes in, spilt his coffee all over the keyboard, and disappeared back into the cemetery. Meanwhile Cath Roberts is grinding around and around, reeling out a gritty left hand continuo.
Handbuilt by Robots is where the gears metaphor comes into its own. In the piece, the players are staged as stacks of gears: similar shapes, different sizes, meshing together, doing what people often forget what gears really do: rotating at different speeds.
Overall the album is somewhere between contemporary jazz and modernist ballet. In fact, everything about this album lends itself to dance: The phrasing is so human, with wild leaps, maddening loops, and vigorous, unforgiving rhythm. Reeds are chewed and caressed, fingers rattle, and onlookers honk - it's an orgy of dogged machinery that mimics and demands the human body.