Polar Bear & Gonimoblast

Hare And Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham UK

The room was rammed and the expectations high for this first Birmingham gig in a number of years from Sebastian Rochford’s quintet. And it’s on the back of the first new album for a number of years as well.

Much has been made in the publicity and reviews of In Each And Every One (now out on the Leaf label – full review here) about how different Polar Bear’s new music is, and that is true. It’s all a lot more processed, each instrument filtered through effect pedals and  through Leafcutter John’s live mixing. The effects are even more dramatic in a cruder, louder live context than they are on the recording.

The band opened its set with the same sequence of three pieces that opens the album. The atmospheric, airy and sublime Open See is full of the kind of clear-eyed wonder that title suggests and Mark Lockheart’s tenor playing was a delight. The celebration of being oneself, Be Free, with the rhythmic humour that is always lurking at the corners of Rochford’s music, has a set of his melodic, upwardly moving saxophone phrases that can be highly addictive. Chotpot, jumpy and easily distracted, was a musically onomatopoeic reflection of our bitty online-interrupted existence.

As the set progressed with the two parts of Lost In Death, Life And Life and others from the new album, so the volume and amount of processing was ramped up, with some high intensity saxophone solos from Pete Wareham, matched by a low end storm from bassist Tom Herbert.

But, while the changes in the band’s sound have been stressed, it’s also worth noting that Polar Bear is still very much true to Rochford’s original and brilliant vision ten years back: the twin tenor lines, the mix of light rhythms and dark harmonies, the individual characters of the musicians shining through, the openness, the ability to be both airy and earthy, often at the same time – all are still present and filling the music out as strongly as ever.

I missed the start of Gonimoblast’s set, but heard enough to confirm this is a powerful band with great potential. Like Polar Bear it is filled with strong musical characters – Chris Mapp on bass, Mark Sanders on drums, Sam Wooster on trumpet, Dan Nicholls on keyboard – and, like Polar Bear, all have their sounds manipulated by Leafcutter John.

I am unsure how much is pre-planned but it sounded to me fairly freely improvised, and while it did tend to resort to what I view as the default overall structure of free music – a slow development from a whisper to a scream and back down again, both in volume and intensity of playing – there were some fascinating interludes within this. My favourite was a conversation between Nicholls and Sanders, the former worrying a knotty right-hand motif that sounded straight out Africa while the latter responded with calmer melodic phrases across the drums and cymbals. All this over a bass underpinning that resonated in the chest cavity and rattled the fillings.

This was only the second outing of this band and while the three younger players and Leafcutter skilfully worked up the intensity the set did have its occasional longueurs. What gives Gonimoblast real increased depth for me is the presence of Mark Sanders. He is always a joy, and appears incapable of playing a dull or cliched phrase.

Categories: Live review

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