It’s a calculated and unbelievably addictive kind of descent into madness. Obelisk — the (wait for it) BRILLIANT debut full-length from Scottish sextet Graham Costello’s STRATA, out Feb. 1 – is a tightly wounded knot that finds itself at the intersection of jazz, fusion and math-rock. And it is wondrous to behold. Sounding, at times, like a jazz-colored take on Pittsburgh math-rock legends Don Caballero or maybe Italy’s Zu at its least post-punk-pressure-cooked, STRATA manages to transcend all the usual blender and reproduction analogies to sound bizarrely original; I literally can think of few parallels to Fergus McCreadie’s swift-fingered piano descents or Costello’s able backbone of percussion, which is not always as unhinged as Damon Che, but is far more bombastic than even, say, firecracker back-beaters like Kyle Crabtree or Britt Walford.
All these math-rock references are direly appropriate, if only as a description of structure. These are clearly jazz players – there’s a natural fluidity to the recording and a shocking precision to each man’s solos that belies that – but, at its heart, a song like the opening title track or “Ocelot” owes more to Slint’s dynamics than it does Miles Davis’ trail-blazing. Elsewhere, the group fits into its head-spinning solos and break-outs like a fine, fitted glove – the blaring tenor sax from Harry Weir, the wails of the incredible Joe Williamson’s guitar. Williamson is actually one of the record’s increasingly pleasant surprises, as he darts between mathy, textural figures that play foil to McCreadie’s occasionally percussive piano flights and more spotlighted, traditional “rock” shredding, all while assisted by Mark Hendry’s electric-bass glue. On some levels, this is the ground trudged by jazz-punk provocateurs like Ron Anderson and his PAK – Secret Curve, Anderson’s genius little epic on Tzadik, is actually a fitting parallel, come to think of it.
Then, there are moments of just, what can you say, sheer brilliance. Take “Ocelot” again. About halfway through the 14-minute track, the band hits a locked locked locked groove that is simply hypnotic and then drops to a sudden silence, jarring. After some blurting from Liam Shortall’s trombone, they gradually build back up into a crescendo and the technique of gradually layering in more and more levels of sound in different times is a mind-blowing demonstration of STRATA’s artistry. (Halfway through the roughly nine-minute-long track, the band sounds like it’s coming apart at the seams, its angular conceits giving way to anarchy. But Costello, who composed the LP, is clearly too smart for that, and continually reigns in the band from the edges of entropy.)The band plays similar tracks with “Ocelot”’s sort of stacking on “Jade,” a slightly lower-blood-pressure jaunt, and the excellent “96,” which moves between crescendos complete with soaring electric guitars or slammed cymbals and slow-boil passages that border on requia.
STRATA brings the seventh installment of its eight-song set, “Sapphire,” nearly to a crawl to allow McCreadie an almost booze-drenched little solo, and McCreadie and Costello steal the show on “Fly,” a reprise of sorts and the LP’s shortest song at 5:03, with pulsing piano and drums that climb their way, roaring, to the rafters. There’s a reason these guys on making such waves on the UK jazz scene.
This is the kind of record whose songs are passed from friend to friend in near-disbelief, a kind of salve for the musician’s musicians out there. Let’s hope these guys continue to aim beyond the boundaries of kingdoms united – goddamn it, man, they have other nations left to conquer.