The Founder Effect Signals That Treader Is Alive And Well!

John Eyles By

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The Treader label released its first CDs in late 2004. The label's distinctive Frauke Stegmann-designed sleeves, featuring embossed gold pictures of animals on plain backgrounds, made them instantly recognisable and collectable design classics. Rather than singly, the label always put out releases in series of three, the animals of each series sometimes being connected—mammals or birds, for instance. The music was made by a close-knit group of musicians centred around the label's proprietors and producers, Ashley Wales and John Coxon (together a.k.a. Spring Heel Jack), and never featured an ensemble larger than a quartet, with solos and duos predominating. For a few years, Treader released a steady stream of fine CDs. But then, the years 2010 to 2012 saw no releases, leading to fears that Treader was no more. Now comes the good news that the label has put out another series of three and, for the first time, they are connected. Yes, a trilogy, no less! So, let's welcome The Founder Effect...

The Founder Effect I

On the trilogy, only four players are involved, all of them well-established stalwarts of the British improv scene—guitarist and keyboardist Coxon, drummer Steve Noble, keyboard player (and Treader veteran) Pat Thomas and saxophonist Alan Wilkinson—a highly promising line-up. On the opening disc of the trilogy, Coxon plays electric guitar while Thomas confines himself to synthesiser. The album's two tracks are both extended pieces—forty-five minutes in total—but otherwise the two contrast sharply. The opener, "Weight" begins with screeching electronic tones that are soon matched by high alto notes from Wilkinson, creating a wall of noise that is softened somewhat by the arrival of guitar and stuttering sax then evolves into a passage of restrained exchanges between the four which gradually intensifies, with Wilkinson as the high-energy driving catalyst.

That rollercoaster start typifies the piece which features the players equally; although Wilkinson's saxophones repeatedly bubble to the surface, he is not favoured unduly. As so often, Noble frequently commands attention, but even when he doesn't he is at the heart of the music driving it along. The piece remains unpredictable as any one of the four can suddenly take it on a previously unsuspected tangent—unpredictable but certainly full of fun and thrills. With "Weight" having reached a storming, sax-driven climax, the transition into the second track "Sharpen" signals a shift to a lower gear and a mellower mood but no drop in the quality or excitement level—just a different kind of excitement. It does not remain subdued though, and gradually builds to a breathtaking, full-on peak before subsiding to a controlled closing passage. Compared to the opener, the players' restraint gives the piece greater structure, making it more engaging, less edge-of-the-seat stuff. Altogether, an exciting way to open the trilogy.

The Founder Effect II

With a generosity of spirit that is touching, the three tracks on this disc are titled after deceased (and much missed) improv heroes—drummer Tony Marsh, saxophonists Lol Coxhill and John Tchicai. (Coxhill never recorded for Treader but Marsh and Tchicai both did.) That gesture serves as a reminder of the close-knit nature of the improv community—a factor which is vital to its music.

Although this CD features the same four musicians as the first one, Coxon here plays synthesiser instead of guitar and Thomas plays piano instead of synth, radically changing the quartet's sound and dynamics. Right from the opening chord, the presence of the piano makes the music feel more structured. Coxon uses the synth in a similar way to Thomas, to add coloration and emphasis; apart from occasions in "Tchicai" he hardly dominates or takes the spotlight.

Noble and Wilkinson play similar roles to before, both still being very impressive on their Treader debut. Although this is a quartet of four equals, theirs tend to be the quartet's dominant sounds, repeatedly attracting attention, particularly on the brief "Coxhill" which at times verges on becoming a duo. Their extensive experience together in their long-standing trio with bassist John Edwards has obviously tuned them in to each other's playing habits and they react accordingly, to the benefit of the whole quartet.

Thomas/Noble—The Both
The Founder Effect III

Excellent as the two quartet discs are, the trilogy saves its ace to the end, thus bringing it to a fitting climax. (Despite that, it is worth stressing that this trilogy should best be heard altogether, rather than one of its discs being cherry-picked.) The pairing of Thomas's piano and Noble's percussion—credited as "The Both"—is an ideal match. The two had recorded together before, on And (Rectangle, 1997) with Derek Bailey, but with Noble on turntables not drums—an encounter that gave no hint of what was in store here...

For forty-five minutes, across six pieces, the two engage in an animated dialogue that ebbs and flows back and forth between them. Thomas is a very percussive pianist who can frequently pound out block chords with great gusto, to great dramatic effect—as at the climax of the opener, "Da Da." Noble is a melodic percussionist for whom the sounds he is making seem as important as his rhythms—as he demonstrates on the track "The Both" with a stunning solo centred around some typically exquisite cymbal work. All of their exchanges form a thrilling and varied ride, with periods of great delicacy and detail interspersed with adrenalin-charged peaks. We must hope their adoption of a duo name signals that we shall be hearing more from The Both. Soon, please. An excellent end to a trilogy to treasure. Yes, Treader is back and in fine fettle...

Tracks and Personnel

The Founder Effect I

Tracks: Weight; Sharpen.

Personnel: Pat Thomas: synthesiser; Alan Wilkinson: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; John Coxon: electric guitar; Steve Noble: drums.

The Founder Effect II

Tracks: Marsh; Coxhill; Tchicai.

Personnel: Pat Thomas: piano, synthesiser; Alan Wilkinson: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; John Coxon: synthesiser; Steve Noble: drums.

The Founder Effect III

Tracks: Da Da; Action We Play; A Googly For Your Thoughts; The Both; Last But Won; LoL.

Personnel: Steve Noble: drums; Pat Thomas: piano.

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