CD Review: The Golden Age of Steam – Raspberry Tongue

The Golden Age of Steam – Raspberry Tongue
(Babel, CD review by Rob Grundel)

There is real drama on Raspberry Tongue. A tension is woven through most of The Golden Age of Steam’s new album, as if a story is being told, as if it is a soundtrack to a film. Both the name of the group and the collective sound suggest that this film could be set in the Industrial Revolution. Let us make the hero one Charles Babbage, a man of this age, who built a gargantuan mechanical precursor to the computer called The Difference Engine. Our protagonist is young and idealistic – in his invention he sees freedom for the human race. Meanwhile, forces are plotting to take it and put it to nefarious uses.

James Allsopp leads his trio on various saxophones and clarinets. He has found lithe compatriots in frequent collaborator Kit Downes (Allsopp plays on Downes’s latest Quiet Tiger) and the award winning drummer Tim Giles. Downes mostly plays the Hammond on this album. At times it sounds more machine-like than an instrument. He wrestles engine room bass, distorted grinding gears and steam driven whistles from the organ’s stops.

All the compositions are written by Allsopp. Time signatures shift fluidly, contrapuntal lines run through each other, the instruments fall apart and then rejoin without warning. The uptempo tunes race, drive and then collapse. The quieter tunes are contemplative but unsettling.

Let us take some highlights from the album as they would appear in the movie. In the opening scenes Babbage suffers heartbreak and focuses his energy on his work, imagining that salvation will come through automation (Mr. Apricot/Imaginary Handbag). There is an aggressive business negotiation as corporations vie for Babbage’s discovery – he refuses them all (Raspberry Tongue). There is the chase scene through a factory as the machine falls apart around them (Eyepatch). And then at the end (Oboe or Glockenspiel) our broken, melancholic hero wonders whether the human race is better off without technology while he watches the world giving birth to the modern age.

Rob Grundel is a Tasmanian writer and musician based in London. He writes the Diminished Augmented blog.

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