Nuanced shades of blue, red, purple and yellow flung onto canvas mingle to clashing effect on the cover of British guitarist Chris Montague
's drumless trio outing Warmer Than Blood
. The title of the guitarist's debut as a leader is taken from a poem by the British writer Fiona Sampson. Its disturbing imagery is matched by the music's underlying restlessness and sporadic agitation, whilst the cover reveals itself to be the reflection of the different timbres, tones and textures which arise between the three stringed instruments. Montague is joined on the album by bassist Ruth Goller
and ECM recording artist Kit Downes
on piano. Downes' already practiced hand for subtle coloration and original explorations within minimally instrumented environmentsas exhibited on his two recent ventures for ECM, Obsidian
(2018) and Dreamlife of Debris
(2019)fits Montague's musical vision like a glove.
A paradoxically warm chemistry envelopes the trio's sonic studies, which, in contrast, seem oriented rather towards the darker, colder side of the emotional spectrum. Even when things seem chipper and positiveas on the opening minutes of "Irish Handcuffs, sense of unease prevails, brought on by lingering chromaticism and hurried runs in counterpoint. But guitar, piano and bass stick together like glue in a complex display of staccato melodicism, displaying special easiness in each other's company. The flow of the piece suddenly clouds, becoming an even more uncomfortable affair, in which Montague's biting guitar snarls against a percussive backdrop, reminiscent of the eccentric style King Crimson
's Robert Fripp
brought to life and continues to cultivate.
What sounds like a promising idea however reveals this date's main flaw. Montague's distorted guitar tone clashes with the prepared piano stabs and the rustic bass rumbles, as is surely intended, but the sonic properties don't match up to create a coherent image. Here lazily distorted, elsewhere on the album inanimately thin and too high in treble, Montague's guitar tone isn't capable of gathering pressing momentum, nor does it adapt to its surrounding. A similar lack of textural detail is true for Goller's ungently rough electric bass swells, whose' deeper frequency spectrum tends to hit out excessively. Criticism, that is voiced so vehemently, because on every other level, Warmer than Blood
exceeds any expectations one could have from the young guitarist and stands as one of the most innovative, and in that respect accomplished, records of the year, so far.
Like searching for a hand to grasp in the dark, the three musicians gradually cross each other's paths on the introspective title track, in which Montague adds subtle layers of overdubbed strumming. "FTM," on the other hand, sees the trio returning to the bipolar structure introduced on "Irish Handcuffs." Ominous ambient sounds give way to experimental piano plucking, that tugs and pulls, before staccato riffing comes gushing out of guitar and piano. While an arbitrary approach to this storm would be an obvious choice, this mess happens by design. Before long, Montague switches to overdrive again while Downes uses the patchwork of space and noise for sublime improvisational bits.
Industrial soundscapes meet chamber music qualities on "C Squad" before an elegant etude graces the record in "Not My Usual Type." Here Montague proves that he doesn't compulsively need to throw rocks in the way of his bandmates, rather he masters tender reflection just as gracefully. The harmonies don't always resolve exactly as expected, resulting in the dichotomous relationship between major and minor that is one of the ballads virtues.
Frippism returns on riff-based "The Internet," which bursts out of the trio with the attitude of a rock band. Of course, like everything else on the record, the song's compositional structure is complex and on a constant mission to turn corners, harmonically, rhythmically and dynamically as well as melodically. As the title suggests, "Rendered" ends the album on a conclusive note. The friendly trickling of notes in a major environmental sway, as if moved by a tender breeze, making room for reflection on what has come to pass in a short 45 minutes. It's too bad that the odd sonic grievance tends to take away from the overall experience. For much of Warmer Than Blood
is truly magnificent.
Irish Handcuffs (Introduction); Irish Handcuffs; Warmer Than Blood; FTM; C Squad; Not My Usual Type; The Internet; Moira; Rendered.