Album Remarks & Appraisals:
The British/Norwegian Food duo of Iain Ballamy and Thomas Strønen are joined again by Austrian guitarist and electronics player Christian Fennesz for a new album of powerful grooves, evocative textures and exploratory improvisation, sometimes hypnotically insistent, sometimes turbulent.
Personnel: Christian Fennesz (guitar, electronics); Iain Ballamy (saxophone, electronics); Thomas Stronen (Fender Rhodes piano, Moog synthesizer, drums, percussion, electronics).
Audio Mixer: Thomas Stronen.
Recording information: Holand Sound, Oslo (06/2013).
Photographer: Nadia F. Romanini.
When originally assembled, Food was an avant-jazz quartet that experimented with sound. After five records with Feral and Rune Grammofon, they pared down to a duo of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and drummer/electronics wiz Thomas Stronen, signed to ECM, and enlisted guests to fill out their lineup. The one constant has been guitarist Christian Fennesz. Electronics are more central to the band's musical identity here, though jazz is still an important part of the mix. They craft something more akin to "songs," though improvisation remains. The basic recordings for This Is Not a Miracle were done in the summer of 2013. Stronen, Ballamy, and Fennesz cut a wealth of material live from the floor of engineer Ulf Holand's studio in Oslo. Stronen (with Ballamy's blessing) took the tapes and worked on them alone for five solid months, radically reshaping the music. His solitary production approach is more directly reflective of electronica, with flaring, undulant grooves, hypnotic beats, glitchy shard-like atmospherics, and spacy rock. That said, the melodic invention of jazz remains at the core. Stronen knew when to leave well enough alone: Ballamy's horn is largely unadorned throughout. Over 11 pieces (most between three and five minutes), the emotional depth of the saxophonist's playing -- with his debt to John Coltrane on full display -- is the set's most defining aspect. The majority, if not all, of Stronen's drums are treated loops, but there is such a fluid, creative sense of rhythmic propulsion that they don't become monotonous. Fennesz's guitar is often treated as a backdrop instrument for tonal variation, or is papered over with blurry echo effects so as to be almost unrecognizable, though there are a few striking exceptions. One is "Sinking Gardens of Babylon," where his flanged, distorted single-string playing offers a skeletal counter to Stronen's tom-tom rim shots and syncopated cowbells. The lonely, desolate, harmonic articulation is carried by Ballamy. "Exposed to Frost" is the set's finest moment. It exists in the meta-musical terrain where Coltrane's modal Eastern melodicism and Miles Davis' most abstract '70s jazz-rock experimentation meet IDM culture. Only three-and-a-half minutes long, it is marked by skittering, brushed snare loops and Ballamy's restrained yet spiritually expressive melody. Fennesz's wah-wah pedal and punchy, droning chords ride waves of dark ambience, adding heft and drama. Ballamy's long tones on closer "Without the Laws" bind the driving, post-jungle rhythm and vast swells of noisy guitars to the earth. Notably, Manfred Eicher's mix on This Is Not a Miracle -- done while the band was rehearsing to play the material in concert -- is kinetic, warm, and connected to the heart of the music; his usually icy signature is nowhere present. The album is the most groove-driven, performable, and accessible record in Food's catalog. ~ Thom Jurek