Unicorn Digital [Release date 01.06.13]
Fusion music often throws an unexpected curve ball at the humble listener, and prog fusion such as this with its musical density, ever changing time signatures and challenging improvisation sometimes pushes the envelope beyond the pale. And yet almost in spite of the manner of its making ‘Occultus Tramitis’ is an exuberant triumph.
The album title means ‘hidden track’, but Canadian bass player, guitarist and composer Antoine Fafard clearly reveals all his talents. He’s one part an improvisational musician and one part a producer, who oversees the musical contributions of 15 guest musicians including Terry Bozzio and Gavin Harrison, none of whom recorded in the same room as him.
Antoine Fafard tells us he wanted to record this album: ‘without the limitations of the band format’. It’s not that he wanted do it all by himself, but rather he sought to expand the musicians he was working with.
The end result is an album built from the ground up, which required him to write the charts, integrate the pieces and make them musically coherent. To that end, he’s also expanded his usual bass playing role to include electric and classical acoustic guitar and tailor the musical moods suited to the respective guests.
‘Occultus Tramitis’ is notable for the way each individual brings something fresh, essential and different to each track. Scott Henderson’s angular notes in tandem with Antoine rumbling bass brings brooding presence to bear on ‘The Chamber’ and Chad Wackerman adds a lightness of touch on his two contributions, while Jerry Goodman delivers passion filled virtuosity on his 5 track contribution.
It’s testament to both Farfard’s musical ability and his producer’s vision that he somehow manages to pull it off, as this is an album that sounds like the exhilarating sum of its parts.
If Zappa was ahead of his time with his concept of Xenochrony, in which he mashed up different solo’s and different versions of the same song, technology has moved on apace making it commonplace for a musician to record their parts at home and drop them in later, or as in this case, sending an audio file to fit a pre-written piece.
The result is clinically precise music within structured arrangements, but with enough spontaneity to light up organically related tracks. It’s music that is closer to Zappa’s mid-80’s experimentation than Jerry Goodman original ground breaking jazz-rock with The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Where Mahavishnu relied on in moment spontaneity, this album is the sum of its planned parts, though as on the very cool ‘Tree O’ – a piece for three basses and a drummer – the three separate bass players coalesce beautifully. ‘Sum of Six’ further extends the illusion of a band feeding off each other via Jean-Pierre Zanelle’s inspired sax solo.
The end result is a musically complex album with different possibilities every time you listen to it. Sure, it’s demanding music, but patience brings it own rewards as the listener is pulled into different musical avenues within the same song. ‘Fur & Axes’ is a prime example, on one of the highlights of the album.
There’s some apparent breathtaking interplay between Antoine, Goodman and Wackerman with the darting bass pulses, and virtuosic ensemble playing, all glued together by Chad’s phrasing. All the more remarkable then that his parts were done at the end rather than at the beginning of the recording.
Each track is a separate entity with its own feel, but the album still has an organic quality. Sometimes, the sax, violin and guitar parts sound almost ethereal and a conceptual cousin to Neil Ardley ‘Harmony of the Spheres’. The difference of course is that Antoine had already recorded the basic tracks before inviting his guests to insert their parts.
‘Occultus Tramitis’ is complex challenging music with stop-start fractured melodies, and momentum inducing solo’s, as on the juxtaposition of the flighty sax solo and piercing violin on ‘13 Good Reasons’.
You can just imagine Antoine studiously hunched over his computer waiting for the right moment to drop in Jean-Pierre Zanella’s exploratory sax solo and perfectly segue it into Goodman’s echo and reverb laden violin, complete with Simon Phillips’s bristling stick work.
This track has such musical depth that it makes the subsequent self explanatory ‘Funkevil’ sound a bit more predictable, until a sudden immense bass solo from Antoine.
The album has something of a linear progression with changes of pace, a variety of complex rhythms and contrasting instrumental elements, but Fafard’s meticulous production is always open-ended enough to leave room for improvisation.
The slapped bass pulses on ‘Slydian’ wouldn’t be out of place on a ‘70’s Stanley Clarke album and there’s an intricate funky dynamic at play emphasized by George Haynes exploratory guitar lines.
There’s also a drum duet between Magella Cormier and Martin Maheux on ‘Metamorphosis’ which derives its tension building dynamic from some effective short pauses and a repeated staccato rhythm that incorporates some portentous violin and acoustic guitar.
Antoine closes with a short inspired Bachian double tracked solo piece ‘Prelude No. 2 in C Minor’, suggesting that whatever colour he brings to his palette, he’s an dazzling musician in his own right. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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