The Comet Is Coming
Channel The Spirits
, April 8th, 2016 08:22
For millennia, humankind has viewed comets as harbingers of doom, portents of change and destruction. The Comet Is Coming – let's call them a three-piece jazz act to start off – are here to recognise these world-altering prophecies and to help us dance like it's the end of the world. They do a pretty fabulous job of it.
So who are The Comet Is Coming? Press releases and online presences name them as Danalogue The Conqueror, Betamax Killer, and King Shabaka, although 30 seconds on the internet reveals their identities as Dan Leavers (keys), Maxwell Hallett (drums), and Shabaka Hutchings (sax). If Shabaka's name rings a bell it's because he also leads Sons Of Kemet, plays in Melt Yourself Down, and guests with Polar Bear and The Heliocentrics. Which means he's about the most exciting (and busy) man in British jazz right now.
Not content with playing on (and writing) some of the best, most creative British jazz albums of the last five years, he's now got a new band and another new sound; Afrofuturist analogue kosmische jazz funk. Huge, played-live (rather than sequenced) synth bass lines, drums Lee Dorsey would have a fit for, more reverb and echo than a dub soundsystem in the Grand Canyon, and Shabaka's unmistakable, frenetic but still melodic sax lines over the top of it. Reduced to words it sounds chimeric, but realised as music it makes perfect sense.
Not that The Comet Is Coming is Shabaka's band; they started off when he joined Dan and Maxwell's other band, Soccer96, for a jam, and Channel The Spirits credits all three with writing, while Danalogue and Betamax are down as producing and mixing; given the importance of the futurist, space-dub soundscapes that The Comet Is Coming are travelling through, that arguably makes their contribution even more integral than Shabaka's.
Take 'New Age', for example; it's a fabulously simple, hypnotic pulse that one could easily describe as Kosmische jazz, if one was that way inclined, and the saxophone's role is way down the pecking order in terms of what makes it enjoyable. Also, it feels much longer than its five-and-a-half minute running time, and I mean that in a good way; it locks into the kind of mesmerising, transportative repetition that could easily last 20 minutes. That's a trick the whole album pulls, actually; 12 tracks fly by in 40 minutes, interludes like 'Nano' segueing between more fulsome workouts and making them feel longer through juxtaposition so that nothing outstays its welcome.
This is also helped by the sense of perspiring, physical energy that pulses through almost everything, preventing the occasional 'to-the-moon!' moments of psychedelic excess from becoming meandering or indulgent. It's easy to think of jazz as onanistic, solipsistic, but Channel The Spirits, like Melt Yourself Down and Sons Of Kemet, is a clear reminder that before it was anything else, jazz was for dancing to – like pretty much all music was – and that it was played by bands, not solo artists.
So 'Space Carnival', with its outrageous, head-snapping riff and hip-snapping beat, manages to somehow feel Brazilian, Nubian, Martian, and Bristolian all at the same time, and 'Slam Dunk in a Black Hole' is dirty, grinding, slow-motion hip-hop replete with a sample of what sounds like an astronaut at the start. The tempo and the way you dance changes, but it never stops. If you've noticed a theme in the song titles – 'Star Furnace', 'Light Years', 'Cosmic Dust' – it's very deliberate. Channel the Spirits is a pretty overtly new take on Afrofuturism, the visionary black take on sci-fi escapism that probably starts with Sun Ra, and filters through Parliament / Funkadelic to Cannibal Ox and Janelle Monáe and beyond. Hutchings has talked extensively about how Sons Of Kemet's music is about the African Diaspora (people hearing New Orleans in his music are a few thousand miles too far west), and their last album featured a track called 'Afrofuturism', so it's no surprise to hear echoes in The Comet Is Coming of Space Invaders, 70s sci-fi films, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, post-punk, Fela Kuti, and 80s dance and electronica as well as the aforementioned Sun Ra, Parliament, and Funkadelic. Given the turgid political state this country is in right now, escaping feels more essential every day, and given the turgid political state of the rest of the world, space might be the only place left.