“SONICALLY, this is a fully analogue record – a computer hasn’t touched it. You hear full takes, and practically zero overdubs.”
Since Strata, his debut release of 2017, Glaswegian drummer/composer Graham Costello (a first-class graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) has been honing his craft; in particular, developing this intensive, progressive band with tenor saxophonist Harry Weir, trombonist Liam Shortall, pianist Fergus McCreadie, guitarist Joe Williamson and electric bassist Mark Hendry. That first, self-released step into a polyrhythmic jazz/rock/minimalist environment, followed by 2019’s Obelisk, has clearly spurred this sextet on to greater heights. The drummer’s ‘live in studio’ approach to capturing it all in full flight (quoted above and qualified by “You hear everything – squeaks, room sounds, pedal clicks”) perhaps bears the most immediate comparison with the ‘real-time process music’ of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, though with more of a funk/soul vibe.
Themes of evolution, heritage, stoicism and inner challenge (look deeper into that cover ‘icon’) permeate these eleven compositions/improvisations, with discoveries about Costello’s extended, Burmese-Indian family especially inspiring the creativity. Fronted by richly powerful tenor sax and trombone, though clearly driven by the leader’s fervent, metrical energy, STRATA as a unit are tight, uncompromising and dynamic – something initially belied by the ambient-piano awakening of အစ (translated from Burmese as ‘beginning’). Recurring motifs strongly inform their overriding energy, exemplified by Eudaimonia which thrives on a blistering wall of approaching/receding horns and pyrotechnic percussion, and continued in torrid, sax-squealing Legion (Costello’s flamboyance at the kit, here, is on another level).
Certainly there are oases of calm, as in Satie-suggested Iris led by McCreadie’s restrained, echoic piano; or Williamson’s notable pitch-bent guitar that paints an unsettling, industrial landscape in Snowbird; and Circularity’s repose summons the slowly-shifting figures of John Ellis and The Cinematic Orchestra. But STRATA’s trademark thunder is unquestionably ‘main feature’, the rasping horns and full-band saturation of The Colossus crescendoing and thrashing to fever pitch, while the brisk momentum of bass-babbling Impetu is carried by relentless piano figures, its boldness momentarily side-stepping into calypso. The pulsating, upward trajectory of Arrowhead creates an exciting, almost menacing three minutes (a double or triple extension to its development can be imagined), closely followed by the John Adams-reminiscent propulsion of Ataraxia – crashing, riffing… and anything but tranquil! To close, the band’s ruminative title track seemingly connects with the earlier-mentioned themes, its cyclical piano and meditational effects perhaps impressing continuity of ‘family’.
Graham Costello’s STRATA have, so far, furrowed their particular groove with panache, character and honesty; and that foundational principle of artistic realism delivers a ‘wow factor’ in this album which will undoubtedly translate explosively into eventual live performance. Advancing the band’s compositional style and sound may be their next challenge – but they’ll be up for it!
Co-produced and engineered by the legendary Hugh Padgham, Second Lives is released on 7 May 2021 and available as CD, vinyl and digital download at Bandcamp.
Graham Costello drums, composition
Harry Weir tenor saxophone
Liam Shortall trombone
Fergus McCreadie piano
Joe Williamson guitar
Mark Hendry electric bass
Cover image by Bernadette Kellermann and Graham Costello
Gearbox Records – GB1566CD (2021)