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  BOWING TO INFLUENCES

MARTIN ARCHER: English Commonflowers

(Discus. 15cd)
www.discus-music.co.uk
I have to say that among my musical heroes Mike Ratledge still stands taller than many. Being a fan of the ‘Canterbury’ organ sound I also enjoyed the fuzzy keyboard outpourings of the two Daves, Stewart and Sinclair. But I always found the Ratledge approach more edgy and exciting. There is no sound quite like the fuzz organ he liberally spread across many of the Soft Machine’s best works from their first to around their seventh albums. His compositions such as ‘Esther’s Nose Job’, ‘Teeth’ and ‘Slightly All The Time’ remain pinnacles of that band’s achievements. He is the only one of that seminal trio, quartet, septet or whatever incarnation you favour, who is not currently active musically. His continuing silence is a cause for regret. I’d better stop there or this is going to develop into a lament for the loss of the fuzz organ when it is meant to be something entirely different.

My excuse for such an opening paragraph is the fact that Martin Archer is a musician who shares my stance on the importance of Mike Ratledge and what’s more he spends most of the first track on this cd, ‘I’m Yr Huckleberry’ resurrecting that spine-tingling keyboard sound. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, just as Ratledge did. I was taken completely by surprise too, not having read the notes which make clear his affections. He further delves into that neglected musical legacy, utilising something approximating those spacey loops which were featured on the Softs studio version of ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’. As a tribute to the saturnine one it gets my vote straight away. There is even some depth-charge fuzz bass guitar acknowledging the close musical association between Ratledge and bassist Hugh Hopper.

But, of course, it is only one piece from this eclectic collection. Though I think lovers of Soft Machine and a certain type of improvised musical ‘Englishness’ will probably enjoy much of it too. For example, the title track, which has mellifluous trombone from Simon Pugsley as well as expansive keyboard and some snatches of Liverpool street noise. Well maybe that last bit just appeals to me. There are also inventive contributions from guitarists, Tim Cole and John Jasnoch. It is uncluttered music where all the voices can have their say. Not content with keyboards Archer also contributes some sublime clarinet on ‘Water Grid’, a piece which contains lovely squirming alto sax courtesy of Charlie Collins. This is a track which alternates between a restrained floating beauty and something altogether more harsh and spiky.

Another ‘lost’ English legend exerts an influence and has his work revived too, though I never would have expected it in this form. Nick Drake was also among my pantheon of unique heroes and his composition ‘Know’ was one of the bleakest of several bleak statements on Pink Moon
. Archer takes this one on all by himself, as did the reclusive Drake. The spare riff he used underpins an equally minimalist but elongated keyboard treatment that fleshes out the skeletal beauty of the original. It is another track which surprised me and caused hairs to rise. I’m not sure what Drake purists will make of it.

Archer openly acknowledges other influences too, paying personal homage to artists and composers from the AACM, Morton Feldman and Messiaen on the longest track ‘Mall Bunnies’. Acoustic bass is pitched against glockenspiel, vibes and birdsong in the gentlest moments which don’t prepare you for the experience of Benjamin Bartholomew’s coruscating guitar. Imagine several bulldozers revving up in a collapsing building and you may be close. Charlie Collins’ flute intermittently lightens the proceedings. It is a sound palette of contrasts worth repeated listening.

There are a couple of other tracks which Archer dedicates to another hero, Roscoe Mitchell. These allow him to foreground his alto playing which has a brittle, tense quality. They maybe different in texture to other tracks but they stand as a kind of homage to another figure who is well worth investigating and is still out there playing.

The final piece has more of that smooth trombone over a backdrop of Archer’s keyboard textures and however arbitrary it may be I still associate the trombone with the Softs and Nick Evans’ short time with them. All of which brings the cd a kind of circle, I suppose. Not a bad way to conclude and one which leaves me anticipating further explorations of Archer’s music and that of his heroes.

         © Paul Donnelly 2003