Taming the Jungle

With Treader, Spring Heel Jack make an etude out of electronica

A little Art never hurt anyone. Sure, cramming accelerated funkbeats into one temporal space and bodies into one physical space was fun while the results were still dubbed "jungle" and confined to the hospitable subculture of the London club life. But such simplicity was also an art project waiting to happen. Never mind the diverting electrodoodles of playful Brits like Aphex Twin; it wasn't until Germans like To Rococo Rot got in on the action that the atmosphere grew particularly rarefied. Oh, what cruel deity deemed that the volk with the greatest surplus of free time should also have the most notorious difficulty distinguishing between kraft and werk?

German electrocomposers never "enjoy" themselves more than when they're conceptualizing about blank exuberance (think of how the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun" streamlined into "Autobahn"). And yet this flirtation with aesthetic respectability is a historic inevitability that the drum 'n' bass faithful will just have to make the best of. Sure it's a pisser to hear some Eurotool leash your pet pleasure so completely that even the ants in your baggy pants start to snooze. But anti-arty sniping is starting to sound as redundant as cranky laments that free jazz just doesn't, you know, swing. I mean, one more squawk from one more kid junglist about how one more stay-at-home composeur is domesticating drum 'n' bass into frilly aural wallpaper and I'm gonna send you all to your respective rooms without hallucinogens.

After all, who said complexity can't remain visceral? Not Spring Heel Jack. For the better part of the last decade, the London duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales has choreographed this march of progress to a liberating wallop designed to rattle the walls of the conservatory. Alas, few of their fellows have fallen in line behind them. Thus, their fourth full-length, Treader, finds them fording a river alone, rather than riding the wake of a movement.

Spring Heel Jack's Ashley Wales and John Coxon cold rock the arty
Spring Heel Jack's Ashley Wales and John Coxon cold rock the arty

What continues to distinguish Spring Heel Jack is the way they retain compositional smarts while revealing a healthy respect for noise. Compare the ingenious economy of their track "Winter," for instance, to the work of drum 'n' bass guru Squarepusher, who spent the better part of an EP reconstructing midperiod Miles Davis in all its frenetic scratchiti. Coxon and Wales craftily feign the same accomplishment by electronically strangling a muted trumpet: They repeat a six-note figure over a changeable bottom for four minutes before dubbing out into a brief, fuzzy coda. Loud and sparse, "Winter" never confuses minimalism with austerity.

Treader also boasts a deeper bass pulse than the pleasant meanderings of armchair kin like Autechre. That bass may wobble precariously or even ominously at times, but it always thuds down with precision. They've got a shifty, complicated beat, true, but you can dance to it. Maybe. Carefully. Take "More Stuff No One Saw," in which dum-dum crash evolves so subtly into da-dum-da-dum crash-ta-ti-ta (now you know why critics quote so many damn lyrics) that the listener may suspect they've adapted classical theme-and-variations to a breakbeat orchestra. The evolving rhythms challenge anyone foolhardy enough to dance, anticipate her expectations, baffle them, and arrive at a discernable compositional logic.

And yet, the two most fully realized moments here (fancy that) are the two most conceptual--a witty assault on a pair of kitschily canonical standards by the dread Rogers and Hammerstein. Their fragmented "My Favourite Things" tools around with the head on processed piano for a minute-plus before a reverb splash phases into an unaccompanied calliope prance--a pretty respectful reading in a perverse way. "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is an übershrill duel between the thick skulls of an angelic choir and a double-plated battalion of church bells. The bells win.

Of course, Spring Heel Jack's "My Favourite Things" won't shut down the ballrooms any more than Trane's version did. In fact, Spring Heel's track has barely made a stateside appearance at all. Both covers have been lifted from the import-only Sound of Music EP, and added as bonus tracks to the U.S. incarnation of Treader, which seemed destined to remain import-only itself.

The duo's career today is a far cry from the mid-Nineties, when Coxon and Wales parlayed an Everything But the Girl production credit into a whirlwind major-label frolic with Island Records. When the huge Universal-Polygram merger was inked last year, Spring Heel Jack were lumped in with umpteen other modestly selling groups that were jettisoned as ballast so the new corporation could ascend to higher profits. It wasn't until Coxon and Wales bedded down with the mighty American conglomerate Thirsty Ear, known for prolonging the multiplatinum careers of industry titans like Marc Almond and Einstürzende Neubauten, that Treader received U.S. distribution.

In other words, armchair dance music is no more a threat to the party people than the moped industry is to General Motors. Sure, it's hard not to be sympathetic to the "fuck art, let's rock" contingent--regardless of what genre it applies that blood-stirring motto to. From Louis Armstrong deriding Charlie Parker's damned "Chinese" perversion of jazz, to the all-American Bandstandlings scrunching their pert noses in philistine disapproval at "Strawberry Fields Forever," history is rife with anecdotes of "progress" disdained by the hoi polloi. And the reactionaries weren't wrong. Both bop and chamber pop produced hours of difficult listening, double-parked the dance floor with rubberneckers, and translated a good time into a private language beyond the grasp and/or interest and/or use of consumers.

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