Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Spring Heel Jack

Melody Maker, late 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Spring Heel Jack have been turning lots of heads with
their marvellous avant-jungle track, "The Sea Lettuce", which
layers dreamy atmospherics over rippling breakbeats.  Based
in Hackney, Sping Heel are a duo, Ash Wates and John Coxon,
and their music is a soundclash of their seemingly
incompatible influences--hardcore and modern classical music.

36 year old Ash's musical background is strictly avant-
garde: 20th Century classical, jazz and avant-funk. Today,
Ash can trace a lineage through his taste from Miles and Can
through dub, PiL, On U Sound to jungle. But for the longest
while, he never cared for club music. Eventually he was
turned onto early hardcore by his workmates (he was a
landscape gardener) who would return still buzzing after mad
weekends.  "Back then," says Ash, referring to late '91, "the
rave scene was more integrated, you'd get the Ragga Twins
played back to back with Human Resource's 'Dominator'.  Now
you'd get 8 hours pure jungle, 8 hours pure trance,  8 hours
pure garage.  Everything's splintered."

Unlike Ash, 30 year old John is as big a fan of soul as
of modern classical.  And compared to Ash, his addiction to
jungle was acquired quite recently. "All these great tunes
started coming out around Christmas.  Then I'd hear the
metronomic, linear beat of techno and I'd think 'naaah, this
doesn't cut it anymore'." As such, John's part of a influx of
new converts that may prefigure the reintegration of jungle
and techno.  Now everybody from Orbital and Bandulu to Junior
Boys Own and Bjork are turning onto breakbeat-science.

"Well, the music's just got undeniable," says Ash.  "But
I've been telling people for years, this stuff is really
sophisticated." Spring Heel particularly rate Hyper-On-
Experience (and the rest of the Moving Shadow roster),
Ronnie Size, and the great LTJ Bukem.  They freely admit that
Bukem's sublime "Atlantis (I Need You)" is the model for the
the urgent-but-serene, oceanic-beat of "The Sea Lettuce".

Ash and John detect all kinds of parallels between avant-
classical and jungle. On their mix-tape, they blend Berio's
"Visage" with A-Zone's "Callin' The People".  Apart from the
way Berio's tape treaments of avant-diva Cathy Berberian's
voice anticipate the 'timestretch' sorcery of sampling, what
are the links between avant-classical and jungle?

"It's all about abstraction," declares John grandly, then
immediately concedes: "Then again, all music is abstract,
non-figurative. But there's different kinds.  In classical
music, you get linear abstraction, the repetition of simple
themes, as with Arvo Part or systems music. A lot of techno
is like that, very horizontal.  But jungle is
vertical, multi-tiered, so it doesn't lull you.  There's so
much going on in the best tracks that you have to play them
at 33 r.p.m just to hear the complexity."

Jungle's overlapping hyper-syncopations simultaneously
sustain a relentless flow and constantly rupture it (the
music's literally composed of breaks). It's like the unstable
ground of modern life, the urban minefield through which we
all stealthily tip-toe.

"Absolutely. It's like, if we lived in mansions, we'd be
writing pastoral symphonies. Jungle reflects its
environment, it could only have come from London." John goes
on to argue that ambient jungle is a sort of successor to dub
reggae: "In dub, all the spacey, reverbed and delayed sounds
surround the dangerous beats and heavy bass, and act like a
narcotic, comforting and wombing you. I like that polarity
between savage and soothing, that ambivalence".

Instead of releasing "Sea Lettuce" as a white label
through the 'ardkore scene, Spring Heel have signed to Rough
Trade (John will also be doing a little junglism talent-
scouting for the label).  Ash reckons this link-up is cool
'cos of RT's "tradition of Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire etc"--
bands he sees as ancestors for dark jungle.  Actually,
"Sea Lettuce" is more reminiscent of Rough Trade obscurity
Arthur Russell, a New York avant-gardist who turned onto
disco and made some classic aqua-funk/proto-garage trax like
"Bang Go Bang", "Let's Go Swimming" and "Indian Ocean".
Despite its samples of waves and ship-ropes creaking, "The
Sea Lettuce" doesn't actually carry a heavy oceanic concept
(it's titled after the nickname of their friend Mary).

The Rough Trade link-up is significant in so far as
Spring Heel are the first in a soon-come series of indie
appropriations of jungle (Bark Psychosis recently played a
breakbeat set, Laika have a jungle track in the can, etc)
"Sea Lettuce" even incorporates rock noise--John's "open-
tuned guitar which I bowed with a slide and held up against
the amp, so that there's a gush of feedback." John admires
reinventors of the guitar like Hendrix and The Stooges' James
Williamson, but he's far more interested in the sampler.
"It's the greatest instrument on the planet. Anyone could do
something interesting in the studio with a sampler, although
not necessarily something great."

What about the future of jungle? The duo sees the genre
splitting off in at least three different directions: the
ragga-influenced stuff, the hardcore drum & bass, and the
ambient/intelligent sound associated with Moving Shadow.  The
latter is where Spring Heel fit best: "music that works at
home as well as in clubs," says Ash "and doesn't need drugs."
John, though, thinks the 'intelligent' label is problematic.
"There's a danger that the music press will focus on the
mellower music, and ignore the ruffer jungle--basically the
black stuff".

As for Spring Heel Jack's own future, next up is the
second single 'Where Do You Fit In' b/w 'Fast and Sad',
followed by an LP early next year.  "Some of it's very odd.
We call it use-less jungle--no beats, you can't dance to it!"

1 comment:

droid said...

Criminally underrated. One wonders what might have happened if they'd tried to get signed to Shadow or GLR instead of being completely ostracised from the scene.