It's easy to see why Bill Laswell was impressed when Peter Vermeersch sent him the demo from Belgium. This band was hot, hotter in fact than pretty much anyone the big, bad N.Y.C. producer/bassist was working with at the time. So X-Legged Sally was invited to record at Laswell's Greenpoint Studio in Brooklyn, and Slow-Up is the result. The band's debut full-length nearly overflows with energy, a sax-driven riff feast with full-tilt forward momentum from the rhythm section and no-holds-barred solos from reeds, guitar, and keys -- all packaged in 15 concise tunes (mainly instrumental and mainly penned by bandleader/clarinetist/saxophonist Vermeersch) that reveal how hooks, melodies, and straightforward harmonic and rhythmic foundations can be an asset even in the jazz-rock or avant-prog worlds. The band's avant tendencies are balanced expertly with the plain satisfaction of nimbly executed unison and harmony lines, memorable themes, and the oft-displayed ability to accelerate from a standstill to light speed (and vice versa) in the blink of an eye. And while Vermeersch and company bring a certain Euro-style artfulness and serious avant jazz chops to the proceedings, the down and dirty influences of funk, blues, and even screamin' rock & roll (check out manic shredder guitarist Pierre Vervloesem's lung-tearing vocals on "Bacon & Eggs") crop up all over the place. Envision the members of Parliament/Funkadelic suddenly finding themselves on-stage with King Crimson running through those crazy stop-and-start unison passages in "21st Century Schizoid Man."
That's what a lot of Slow-Up is like. But if the album were merely fast, faster, and fastest music 100 percent of the time, it would ultimately be a bit of a bore -- like a Hollywood big-budget action movie with five or six too many chase scenes. Slow-Up isn't that; Vermeersch expertly modulated the program and he knew when to...er...slow down, as in "Down at the Dinghy," a lovely little tango performed by the band's three reedmen with everyone else sitting out. And "Blackhead Blue Blues" is as moody and low in its slow groove as the blues can be, that is until Vervloesem unleashes a torrent of notes from mysterious depths right out into the stratosphere. Still, hard chargers like "34th Street," "Turkish Bath," and "Memphis" are the biggest stunners, with high-spirited energy, compact structures, and grooves that won't let go. If there's any fault whatsoever, it's with the album's somewhat bottom-heavy sound. The reeds could've been punched up when the entire band is cranked and cooking; perhaps engineer Oz Fritz forgot to tweak the knobs from one of Laswell's atmospheric ambient/world/dub productions. Or maybe the band frightened him and he ran out before he could tweak anything (naw, Fritz was back engineering the Laswell-produced Killed by Charity during the band's next U.S. visit). At any rate, it's a minor quibble. Slow-Up is difficult to find but worth a search, particularly by anyone interested in exploring the roots of Peter Vermeersch's longstanding avant big band Flat Earth Society, which started up after Vermeersch retired X-Legged Sally in 1997 and has continued to include a number of former XLS members into the 21st century. ~ Dave Lynch