Contemporary, Indie, Jazz
Reviewed by Mandy Stefanakis, January 1st, 2015
Artistic Director of Synergy Percussion, Timothy Constable, is the consummate musician, covering the spectrum of genres in his work as a percussionist and composer, from taiko drum extravaganzas, to classical interpretations and jazz. The ensemble’s latest venture seeks commissions for 40 composers to each create pieces lasting 40 seconds for a celebration of the group’s fortieth year. Constable is a past recipient of The Music Trust’s Freedman Classical Fellowship amongst other accolades. Moth People is a sideline attraction for the group and in addition to Synergy staples, Bree Van Reyk and Bob Scott, the band is essentially Constable, fellow Synergy member David Symes on bass, then Evan Mannell, drums (who has worked with many including Boy and Bear) and Carl Dewhurst, an incredibly versatile and much sought-after jazz guitarist.
Moth People’s first venture, Destination People Street , has wrapped its sound around me over the last few weeks with a constant reminder of the power of music to rise above life’s crap. Which is ironic in a sense because if there’s a pervasive message explored across the disc, one can, perhaps, encapsulate it in the following way: life sucks, love is good so hang on to it while you can and finally, gravity rules. More on this later!
One of the reasons I’m so drawn to the album is it tends to hark back, for me anyhow, to that time in the late sixties, early seventies where everyone was pretty rebellious and happy. Well, I was naive at the time and thought the smiley faces were just smiley, happy faces and that folk music was hip and pure. But the music, whether trip-inspired or not, was revolutionary, in that it veered from the three minute pop standard, stopped talking about moons in June and started exploring whatever happened to be on people’s minds or in the political landscape. It ventured into areas of jazz and classical music, with sometimes overly indulgent soundscapes, but it was inventive and a lot of it helped sculpt the future of contemporary music.
Many Australian groups are exploring these places again and Moth People is one of them. Where commercial stations and record companies often stay in safe music zones, the power of the internet and yes, it must be stated loudly, the ABC, encourage the imaginative and risky to blossom. This is reminiscent of the groundswell of people in the sixties and seventies defying conventions and immersing themselves in social and cultural innovations.
The sound on this album is wonderfully fresh. Although these musicians enjoy dabbling with electronica and there are hints of it here, particularly on the epic opening to Freefall, overall the lack of a feel of quantisation and the acoustic prevalence, is joyous, particularly the ever-present mallet percussion. Not that the music is in any way lacking in precision, it just never sounds airbrushed. Constable has a really beautiful tonal quality to his voice and this, with his own lush harmonies, is a feature of the album. But the other is the incredibly deft playing of the instrumentalists and their forays into who knows where next. There is never an attempt to dumb down the instruments at the expense of the vocals.
Gravity. Many things seem to fall on this album from stones, to arrows, to people. Another is time. On Back to You, ”Time has a way of falling down, Like tears upon the ground. Seems every day is old sometimes, When the smiles you wore, They drop at your feet.’ Well time actually goes in a circle. You end up where you began and from observation, that child-like state for many near the end is not nearly as enticing with a little wisdom and pride behind it. And in this song, the writer, with his smile on the ground, ends up running back to someone, which, of course, could all go so horribly wrong. But the music is transcendent as it is throughout, defying gravity. The track starts by marking time as one would expect. But an addictive ascending baseline introducing the chorus drives you up with the busy propulsion of the marimba. They are a counterpoint to the sustained vocal harmonies. It’s really lovely.
The same kind of musical destiny is found in Once a Man with its brutal honesty in appraising the alpha male. This song chooses Australian/Irish sea shanty roots as the basis for its structure. The amplified acoustic guitar is rich and warm here and the resonance of the vibes enhances that feel. Numbered Trees is another song that, given its sombre lyrics, could leave one feeling a little, um, down, but it is an instrumental riot with gorgeous improvisation on piano, kit, guitar, bass, vibes and marimba and such is the richness and virtuosity of playing that you really wouldn’t mind drowning in it.
There are several extended songs on Destination People Street and in many ways they are the most satisfying because of their great structures and the interplay between the lyrics and music. Falling, Falling, Falling is one of these. It sustains a range of repeated descending patterns on different instruments throughout, but builds from a very simple backdrop to the vocals on marimba and electronica until electric guitar pumps up the warmth of the ambience. There are some great contrary-motion interplays here too. Then the tom is introduced, and plenty of it. It’s an incredibly strong track. But so is the vaguely Pat Methenyesque City Girl, with its twang guitar, repetitive brushed snare and bass guitar drone. The vocals are sublime here as they are throughout. ‘Just when you think you’re done, Someone comes along, And it’s on.’ Perversely this is the most reflective piece in terms of the music but contains the most optimistic lyrics.
Moth People don’t put a foot wrong on Destination People Street and it is hoped that this incarnation of Synergy Percussion will continue in some guise into the future. To be deprived of Constable’s vocal capacity almost amounts to a sin. I will forever seek out this album when the going gets tough. It helps play gravity at its own game.