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Food: Mercurial Balm

David McLean By

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Food's seventh studio album and second for the ECM label is easily the most cohesive offering from its varied discography. A combination of live and studio recordings, British saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian beat technician Thomas Stronen travel through a rich plateau of effervescent electronics, propulsive yet angular rhythms and near twilight jazz phrasings, which combine to create a heady, ethno-centric mix. As on Quiet Inlet (ECM, 2010), the duo continues to bring in similarly disciplined experimenters to add to its detailed soundworld, including guitarists Fennesz and Eivind Aarset, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and Indian singer/slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke.

Whereas previous recordings have at times felt fractured and disconnected, Mercurial Balm feels resolutely whole. Opening with a hushed melancholy, Ballamy's John Coltrane-isms reach a crescendo that bleeds into the motorik-techno beat of "Celestial Food," Strønen's drumming flecked with Gamelan accents, as Fennesz's waves of electronics lap around the spaces left by the rhythm. It's a surprising twist early in the record that sets the albums tone perfectly; Food isn't just expanding its sound, but delving into new territories. "Phase" gives more credence to this claim, where the group's apex in a down-tempo rock groove surrounded by swathes of distorted chords is a climax to which this journey is the perfect conclusion of its live collaboration with Fennesz. This track, and those preceding, sing for this charged ending.

Only on repeated listens is it possible to tell the minute differences in the groups across the tracks—it's startling that Strønen and Ballamy have been able to blend the album so well, given the diversity of the source material. It speaks volumes of their collaborators, whose personas are tamed to the sound of the duo. Molvær is particularly sensitive on "Moonpie," coloring Ballamy's searching melody with soft plumes. Sontakke's sufi-like singing injecting a human character to "Chanterelle" and "Mercurial Balm," his slide work mirroring his voice and conversing with Aarset's processed tones. Strønen undoubtedly shines on this album, managing to combine the "everything and the kitchen sink" playing of Tony Oxley, yet reinventing that sound with a stupendous range of dynamics and polyrhythmic grooves through electronic synthesis, in particular on "Astral" and "Galactic Roll," which beg for repeated listens.

The collusion of electronics and traditional jazz elements has become evidently more present on the contemporary scene and the ECM label and offers a fresh and purposeful counterpoint to traditional acoustics. Label offerings from Arve Henriksen and the return of fellow trumpeter Jon Hassell have evoked similar moods. Titans of electronic music-making are also returning the favor; Moritz Von Oswald and Vladislav Delay both forming and recording with improvisational groups centered on the potential of electronics within jazz. It is a testament to Food's continued ingenuity that its records have managed to remain so fresh in this context. Mercurial Balm clearly presents Food as one of the finest progenitors of this evolving stream of music.

Track Listing: Nebular; Celestial Food; Ascendant; Phase; Astral; Moonpie; Chanterelle; Mercurial Balm; Magnetosphere; Galactic Roll.

Personnel: Thomas Strønen: drums, electronics; Iain Ballamy: saxophones, electronics; Christian Fennesz: guitar and electronics (1-6, 12); Eivind Aarset: guitar and electronics (7-9); Prakash Sontakke: slide guitar and vocal (7-9); Nils Petter Molvær: trumpet (6).

Title: Mercurial Balm | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records

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