Submental is the trio of Nick Ashwood (acoustic guitar), Jim Denley (bass flute) and Amanda Stewart (voice/text). On 180˚ these three conjure up eight richly detailed soundscapes. The word ‘breath’ kept coming to mind as I listened to this album. Death rattles, mighty gusts of wind, the scrape of branches on a window, a whispered incantation or an angry declaration, even (ever so briefly) a choir of frogs (!!!), this music seems always to be speaking with streams and strings of air.
I liked how there were times when the listener could feel certain about what was making a particular sound – and certain noises seem only capable of emanating from Denley and Stewart (this is my first encounter with Ashwood) – but at other times this certainty would disappear. It might sound like a nightmare to some, but for an improvising musician and audience this collective inbetweenness is magical. While only three in number, often it would appear that at least six people (maybe even more) were making these sounds. The listener can almost always hear the apparatus that produces this music – the tongue, mouth, lungs, wire, metal, wood – and perhaps this is something Submental tried hard to emphasize because it seemed like a defining feature of the album. The listener is brought close – at times it seems very close – to these three. Listening on headphones sometimes feels like you’re inside the bubbling pot.
With the lack of bass-y instrumentation you’d think there would be a certain predisposition towards mobility in the music created by this trio. But instead of ‘flitting about’ Submental have for the most part chosen to pursue a meditative approach to how to develop their improvisations. This relative stasis does make for some listener fatigue, but, as I struggled with this, I began to realise that such a response is a failure to apprehend the great detail that is constantly on offer here. In fact, there were numerous times when I felt like just one of the voices would have been more than enough to take in. The middle of album lynch-pin Isoceles is just such a moment. All three make contributions that work together, but I felt like I was missing a lot when I was swept up in focusing on what one was doing. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
On the one hand I loved it when all three improvisers played in unison, such as at the start of the second track Equilateral. But tracks like Oblique, a soundscape at times bathed in a dark silence, shows how well Submental make use of less is more. Stewart leans in and out of the shadows in a way that leaves the listener craning their neck to catch her next fleeting appearance. The harsh beauty of Ashwood’s strumming entry following this episode seems like a golden resonance.
The tracks range in length from 14 minutes to 37 seconds. The mini-track Obtuse is surely an incidental moment between ‘proper’ takes, but it works here. Injecting a moment of (what I interpret as) humour is something I wish more improvisation records would do. It’s a reminder that making music is fun, even if it purports to be ‘serious’ listening music.
I hope this isn’t a one-off release from Submental. Stewart, Denley and Ashwood have real chemistry.