In Each And Every One
, March 25th, 2014 09:44
Polar Bear's fifth full studio album comes after what seems like quite a gap – it's been four years since Peepers – but it's not as if the individuals who make up London's most acclaimed jazz outfit have been taking it easy; last year members of this outfit contributed significantly to a number of outstanding records, from saxophonist Pete Wareham's excitable Nubian party band Melt Yourself Down (which also featured Polar Bear electronics guru, Leafcutter John), to Polar Bear honcho Seb Rochford drumming on the outstanding debut album by Sons Of Kemet, and Rokia Traoré's excellent Beautiful Africa.
The mess of bands that surrounds Polar Bear – Acoustic Ladyland, The Invisible, Basquiat Strings, Fulborn Teversham, etc, as well as Melt Yourself Down and Sons Of Kemet – is deliriously incestuous and collaborative, members helping each other out by both playing on and producing each others' records, moonlighting in three or more different bands at once. To an outsider trying to keep up and follow the various creative career strands it can be as confusing as it is exciting; I'm not sure when I saw Melt Yourself Down play live in Bristol last November exactly who, apart from Pete Wareham and Kushal Gaya, was onstage who'd also played on the record, due to clashing touring schedules.
But Polar Bear definitely feel like the centre of this amorphous scene, the nexus from which all this outrageous talent and outstanding music radiates outwards. Over the last decade Rochford's group have established themselves as a perpetually creative force, never sacrificing accessibility for forward momentum or vice versa. Despite being led by a drummer, melodicism has always been key to what Polar Bear do, their music often revolving around the kind of hooks, and out-and-out tunefulness, that people who disdain jazz without engaging with it assume are alien to the genre, even as they flit from style to style and interpolate influences well outside what you might think was their given sphere.
In many ways In Each And Every One is the polar opposite (forgive the pun) of Melt Yourself Down; where that record is frenetic, chaotic, taut, hook-driven and rocky, this one is loose, strung-out, and sparse. Despite the shared personnel and heritage, the atmospheres and aims of each record feel completely different; an emotional ying to a visceral yang. Where Melt Yourself Down only wanted to take you higher, In Each And Every One wants to take you on a journey, and in order to do that sets about constructing the very sonic landscape that you'll be travelling towards your destination through.
And what a landscape it is. Their previous four albums have clearly seen the band evolve and develop, but this, though still recognisably the same group, feels like a very deliberate statement of new intentions. Perhaps it's the way 'Open See' begins the record in clouds of ambience and droning found sounds, and consists of little more than this and a lone, melancholy saxophone for seven minutes, like some spectral remix of latter-day Talk Talk by someone who has listened to a lot of Burial. Or maybe it's the way 'Be Free' winds an intently tight rhythm and incongruously jaunty melody around some sparsely minimal, practically subsonic beats and dismantling electronics into something that can only be described as "sci fi" jazz.
Even 'Chotpot', which start with 10 seconds of something that sounds and feels like the Polar Bear we know from the past, quickly deconstructs itself into a reductive bass groove, characterised as much by space and absence as by what's actually included in the mix. And what a mix! With a good pair of headphones and some concentration you can easily discover entire distant solar systems of sound in here; on several tracks it feels as if the main rhythms and beats are programmed, with live percussion and drumming skirting around the edges, filling corners of the soundstage. The studio is deployed as an instrument as much as the brass and drums the band are known for, and the effect is magical.
There are swirling mélanges of sound that veer far closer to the territory of drone than jazz, not least on 'Maliana' and 'Life And Life', which make explicit the relationship between these two genres; both often based on improvisation and in search of sublimation, there are acres of common ground in the territory where you start to lose your sense of self as you lose your place within the tune. And whilst 'WW' will get dangerously close to skronking indulgence for some, the following 'Lost In Death Part 2' is, simply put, about the most beguiling and lovely tune I've heard this year, from anyone operating in any genre.
In many ways – not least the deployment of guitar – Peepers felt like Polar Bear's most rock-influenced album to date. In Each And Every One is more in thrall to experimental electronic music, and minimalism in general. I've played the hell out of it for the last three months or so, and I'm still finding new melodic turns, new emotional corners, new sonic details and new topographies every time I play this wonderful record.