Tim Berne's Snakeoil has a release schedule that feels thoroughly retro: ECM debut Snakeoil released in 2013, Shadow Man in 2014, and now You've Been Watching Me. Often such a schedule would be done at the expense of quality control. But this is ECM we're talking about, and quality control is one of their key ideals (whether you agree with that or not is another matter, but they certainly are very conscious about their decisions, if nothing else).
There is something very Zappa-like about the sound here (early post-Mothers era), despite the lack of a rock band underpinning. The orchestrated interplay of the mostly acoustic instruments (Ryan Ferreira's guitar accounting for the majority of the electonics). Moods duck and weave, shifting methodically but not formulaically.
Album opener "False Impressions" adheres to this kind of arrangement, setting up what is to come. The temptation to dissect this, somewhat academically, is high. However, such an exercise is only of use if you plan on reverse-engineering the Tim Berne methodology. Instead, I have found that repeated listens yield the best results, where what seems like endless strings of phrases is actually much more coherent, patterned, graspable. The immediacy also increases with each play. "Lost In Redding" has greater impact with each listen, that opening drive laying up the piece for some interesting electronics intermixed with the clarinet and piano. The rebuild of the orchestration is both enthralling and somewhat freaky, feeling like watching a fire spread, room by room, through an apartment block.
By contrast, the sprawling "Small World in a Small Town" (over 18 minutes) certainly is a slow burner, not in any real hurry to get started, almost plodding, as though there was a hill to climb before things could really begin. Once the vibes and drums have begun to appear, though, the tension levels are certainly on the rise ... But this is something of a con - you've been had! Not that you mind, because what you get is a beautiful solo reed section. Eventually, the alto is rejoined by the piano, then the rest of the group emerge, the beat shuffling along, yet the build-up from something almost introspective to urban maelstrom is an impressive feat in its own right - and that's before taking into account the fact that it sounds great.
"Embraceable Me" (great title) returns to that Zappa (Post-Mothers) mode that Berne has taken full ownership of, and once again provides a masterclass in tension and release, with moments of almost drone-like ambience, sparseness, and fragility jostling with moments of frantic abandon, thundering unison, and entangling counterpoints. There is drama here: interpretive dance choreographers could have a field day with this stuff ... "Angles" - a surprisingly short piece - feels like a determined march, as though saying: "I have somewhere to be, and I'm leaving right now". Although the title "Angles" might suggest something that shoots in random directions, in fact the opposite seems to hold true: the angles create shapes, not some random sick-of-the-Etch-a-Sketch doodle.
The title track, "You've Been Watching Me" (I was expecting something slightly paranoid, something edgy, something downright creepy) is a gentle solo acoustic guitar piece, and truly beautiful: in the context of the album, though, it takes on more strength than it would on an album of such pieces. "Semi-Self Detached" once again enters the dramatic arena, beginning with angular construction, moving into pulsing atmospheric playing, before, around 6 minutes in, Berne takes off on a solo, full of piss and vinegar, ripping and tearing its way through the construction behind him. The piece gently winds to a close, and with it, the whole set.
While this album (imho) doesn't quite match up to its predecessor, Shadow Man, it certainly isn't short on that quality control I mentioned at the start. The sound quality is as high as one might expect from ECM, and David Torn's production input remains attuned to Berne's rather than strongly influential upon it. It is a richly textured album, bursting with ideas and energy, and no shortage of labyrinthine orchestration, unexpected left-turns into dense fogs, and startling soloing. The addition of Ferreira has certainly opened the sonic pallette somewhat, although not to the extent I would have expected. However, maybe next year will see an album that ventures further into the possibilities this quintet version of Snakeoil affords: That retro release schedule of Berne's is a godsend, as I'm already looking forward to hearing the next Snakeoil album.
Tim Berne - alto sax
Oscar Noriega - clarinets
Ryan Ferreira - electric and acoustic guitars
Matt Mitchell - piano and electronics
Ches Smith - drums, vibes