The beating heart of Necessary Animals, its nucleus and core creative partnership, are the musician, composer and musical auteur Keith Rodway, and the multi-instrumentalist, song-writer and singer Amanda Thompson. They are in essence the two surviving members of a five year old musical project that has always been highly eclectic; more a platform for a very diverse range of talents than some static ‘rock band’ churning out songs. In fact while the term ‘rock band’ doesn’t fit them, nor does ‘South Coast alt psych supergroup’, a label literally attached to their eponymous first album in a futile attempt at defining their shtick. (Although they may well be a supergroup). Necessary Animals’ latest album ‘Dark Jazz’ has classically-trained avant garde musician Paul Huebner on trumpet on the opening track ‘Driving Out’, and, like on their debut, the string musicians Camo Quartet are featured throughout. This is not a music that’s easy to pigeon-hole. In fact attempting to do so is pointless, especially if any such attempt is confined to the realm of one of rock’s many narrow sub-genres.
A cop-out definition that comes to my mind is ‘fusion’. However, while the instrumental ‘Driving Out’ has more than a trumpet to evoke Miles Davis, the man who invented several ‘jazz’ fusions, this album as a whole is a fusion of almost anything you can think of. There is a jazz, even a dark jazz, undercurrent heard in the sensibility of some of the playing, but what the hell does ‘jazz’ mean anyway? When Miles Davis invented so-called ‘jazz-rock’ fusion he’d left the established conventions of jazz long behind, other than the fact that he and Wayne Shorter were African-Americans playing brass instruments. On the ‘Dark Jazz’ title track the feel is more filmic than fusion. Keith’s synth treatments orchestrate proceedings while his ‘free jazz’ piano gels intensively with Fritz Catlin’s jazz-style drumming.
The cover artwork of 'Dark Jazz' c/o Necessary Animals' Bandcamp page
This album, consisting of various Necessary Animals’ musical collaborations from 2016-19, isn’t just instrumentation either. Ingvild Deila performs most of the vocals, as she did on the first album just before departing to play Princess Leia for a Disney-produced Star Wars movie. The Norwegian has also contributed some vocals to a third Necessary Animals album that’s currently in progress with various supporting musicians. Her suitably atmospheric vocal contributions on ‘Dark Jazz’ match the charged, off the wall, instrumentation at the core of Necessary Animals. In addition to playing percussion, Fritz Catlin, a founding 23 Skidoo member, mixed much of the album, as he did the debut LP.
|Necessary Animals' image for the title track c/o its Bandcamp release |
‘You Took the South, I’ll Take the Twilight Skies’ is one of the most successful musical collaborations on this record. The drone-like interplay of the Camo Quartet’s Laurens Price-Nowak on cello and Bill John Harpum on viola, combined with Keith on synthesiser and Holly Finch’s spoken ethereal vocals, evoke the sound and atmosphere of a south Asian religious chant. Her religious text though was random sections of The Times Literary Supplement and, says Keith’s explanation on BandCamp, the musical inspiration was primarily a piece by La Monte Young (a man who influenced and collaborated with a wide range of musicians including John Cale, one time viola player in The Velvet Underground).
There’s a similar musical vibe on ‘Improvisation 1’, a wholly instrumental piece that was incredibly, as the title suggests, worked up in real time by Laurens and Bill on cello and viola respectively, before the result was mixed by Fritz Catlin. This track has an intense emotionality at its dark core; a soundtrack for a movie almost too unbearable to watch. It evokes a film scene running through the mind on a constant, nightmarish, loop until, eventually, the mood somehow lifts and things draw to a close with a vague, and very ill-formed, sense of hope.
‘Darkness Comes Over the Hills’ will be familiar to some because the song version was on the first album. This instrumental version features Keith and Amanda contributing different piano parts, while Keith is also on bass, and Steve Finnerty (of Alabama 3 fame) contributes some excellent bluesy riffs on guitar. Their combined effect is somehow both tight and loose, expertly and evocatively played with, again, a dark edge that can so easily take you to where you want, or don’t want to go.
Visual artist Lucy Brennan-Shiel adds her voice to two pieces that form a distinct element to this album in that on both she reads text from Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ against improvised music by Keith, Amanda, Lee Inglesden (on guitar) and, on one, even a bowed tree branch courtesy of Nick Weekes. On ‘Fox and Clock’ Keith took an audio sample of a vulpine visitor to nearby gardens, the musicians then weaved their contributions on top, before Lucy read words evoking a canine’s wild and ultimately fatal night while Nick also plays a pine cone to surprisingly good effect. As spoken text on top of an improv, it works. However ‘Bronze by Gold’ is an unnecessary version of a broadly similar idea but is done at much greater length. At over 11 minutes this is the longest track by far on the album. Its atmosphere is killed stone dead when Lucy switches from the spoken delivery that is her forte as a Joycean scholar, to sudden flights of sub-operatic style vocal fancy. It’s not her fault that this aspect wasn’t edited out of the mix. The whole thing put me in mind of the experimentation of ‘Horse Latitudes’ on The Doors’ second album (‘Strange Days’). Wild, even for 1967, it featured Jim Morrison intoning his own (supposedly inferior) text to what sounds (more or less) like improvised accompaniment. At least he, or producer Paul Rothschild, reined that in to less than two minutes.
However this listener’s discomfort with what is only one out of nine pieces shouldn’t distract from what, overall, is a fine musical collection by a fine bunch of musicians. ‘Familiar Heat’ for example instrumentally reworks a track that appeared as an extra on a very limited CD run of the debut album. It ranges, as does the whole of ‘Dark Jazz’, through many different tempos and styles, and features the deft touch of Peter O’Donnell on both guitar and piano and Alan Bruzon, a long time musical collaborator with Keith and Amanda, on ebow guitar (an electronic strings effect gizmo). The album concludes with ‘Snoen Falt ikwald’ (or ‘Snow Fell Tonight’) on which Ingvild sings her father’s lyrics to an accompaniment that includes Alan playing the kalimba, and Amanda and Keith on steel food bowls (natch). Together they somehow successfully acoustically evoke the dark white light of a Scandinavian night.
Necessary Animals' image for 'Familar Heat' c/o its Bandcamp release
This isn’t the Necessary Animals ‘difficult’ second album. Rather it brings together projects outside of what Keith calls the band’s musical ‘day job’, some of which were conceived of before the first Necessary Animals’ record was recorded. Right now he and Amanda are continuing work on that third album, having just released a stellar Covid era number, ‘Above The Waterline’. Amanda is also very active with her own, highly melodic and highly impressive, indie pop band The Big Believe, while Keith has several film and archival music projects planned. In a sense ‘Dark Jazz’ is a slice of Necessary Animals’ musical history, but it’s no less fascinating for that.