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Tom Challenger and Kit Downes: Black Shuck

Bruce Lindsay By

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"Atmosphere" is one of those oft-used, hard to pin down, words that music writers are wont to distribute across their outpourings. Sometimes, it's used without qualification—an "atmospheric" piece, a song that has "atmosphere"—much in the way that people speak of having "blood pressure." So when a work such as Tom Challenger and Kit Downes' impressive Black Shuck appears, laden with atmosphere, some further discussion of the term is crucial—especially when the album's own press release refers to it as "dusty and claustrophobic," which are not terms usually associated with showbiz hype.

Exactly what sort of atmosphere? The track titles give nothing away, but the album title offers a clue to anyone steeped in the mythology of England's eastern counties. Black Shuck is a huge, fearsome, ghostly black dog with a blood-curdling howl. Said to inhabit the countryside of those counties, it is sometimes a harbinger of doom. So, not the party atmosphere beloved of Russ Abbott. Black Shuck, like Challenger and Downes' previous release, Vyamanical (Slip Imprint, 2016), follows a more reflective and meditative path, but here a sense of foreboding is never far away.

There are just two tracks on Black Shuck: one featuring a septet including Downes' partner in Tricko, cellist Lucy Railton, the second stripped back to piano and saxophone. In both cases, instruments meld together almost as one, individual characteristics often surrendered to the cause of the ensemble, enhanced and altered by Alex Bonney's electronics.

The septet track, "One," is notable for the contrast between tension—mainly from the strings and percussion—and Challenger's mournful saxophone interjections. Stripped down to a duo (albeit still enhanced by Bonney's electronics), the sound is more spacious and perhaps even more dramatic. Challenger's saxophone wail conjures images of the fearsome Shuck, interspersed with less threatening, almost comforting, imagery. Oddly, although Downes is credited with piano it sounds, on both tracks, as if he's playing an organ (as he did on Vyamanical).

Black Shuck is released as a limited edition cassette plus download. Hopefully this is just the first version of the recording and it will be available in more formats in future. Alongside Vyamanical, Challenger and Downes' latest slices of atmospheric musical explorations are starting to form a strong and constantly fascinating body of work. Just as long as Black Shuck itself keeps well away...

Track Listing: One; Two.

Personnel: Tom Challenger: saxophone; Kit Downes: piano; Alex Bonney: electronics; Lucy Railton: cello (1); Liam Byrne: violin (1); Emma Smith: violin (1): Daniel Bradley: percussion (1).

Title: Black Shuck | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Slip Imprint

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