CD review

CD REVIEW: Metamorphic – The Two Fridas

Metamorphic – The Two Fridas
(DISCUS 65CD. CD review by AJ Dehany)

When she was six, the painter Frida Kahlo contracted polio. Confined to bed for a month, she made up an imaginary friend who accompanied her for the rest of her life. In her diary she recalled the experience as being the origin of one of her most important paintings The Two Fridas. That double portrait of Frida Kahlo is transformed into a double portrait of composer and pianist Laura Cole in the new double album by her octet Metamorphic. Part spoken word, part sound art, part improvisation, part composition, as a double album it has an almost overwhelming emotional and intellectual heft. The album is, she says, “an attempt to express intimate emotions and thoughts through the creative – and recording – process”. It’s an attempt that places significant demands on the listener.

A double album poses significant problems for attention and pacing. They’re often patchworks or sketchbooks (like the Beatles’ white album which is currently celebrating its 50th birthday). The Two Fridas seems conceptually coherent, with shape and development, but it does take its time to emerge. Overall it’s a slow, atmospheric listen, sparingly melodic. Many of the tracks start with an atmospheric sense before settling into a theme or groove. The concision of one of the album’s highlights, Senken, coming in at under five minutes, makes for a more satisfying and visceral conception – though in additon to his rapport with bassist Seth Bennett, I’d love to hear more of drummer Johnny Hunter and bassist Ruth Goller together; there’s a real punch when they lock together.

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Laura Cole is not only a bandleader, composer and pianist, but a poet. The spoken word elements form the connecting tissue of a journey into an exploration of self-knowledge and overcoming, reflecting her fascination with symmetry and “the double-sidedness of things, maybe as a Gemini”. The title track is the clearest outline of the concerns of the album: “I am the person I know best; it will be better in the knowing.” It also demonstrates some of the characteristics of Laura Cole’s writing, with many tracks using short repeating thematic sections or units.

The long track The Mountains, The Sea / The Island is an opportunity to hear her singular piano inventions. For a full picture you have to hear her recent double album Enough, which comprises a disc of arrangements of others’, and another of originals and improvisations. Her piano playing is lustrous and a touch eldritch, with a distinctive classical sense and a richly developed harmonic sensibility.

Naturally the album has not one but two centrepieces: the title track and the 17-minute suite Digging For Memories, which presents an unfolding of dignified and controlled emotion. Charcole I & II also obey the Gemini tendency, recorded back to back; essentially presenting two sides of the same improvisation. In Little Woman, Lonely Wing Cole weaves together Ornette Coleman and Jimi Hendrix compositions in a way that sounds uniquely her own. As a bandleader Laura Cole is light-handed but inspires discipline in the ensemble. Recorded at Real World, the clear dynamic sound impresses on you individual contributions and the individuality of the contributions.

John Martin specialises in extended techniques on the tenor sax and brings a dash of that grit to forge a strong responsive trio together with Chris Williams from Led Bib on alto sax and Ollie Dover on bass clarinet. Johnny Hunter’s command of pace and dynamics is valuable in these extended structures that start quiet and abstract, and move inexorably toward a groove or vocal ostinato. Vocalist Kerry Andrew always feels embedded in the group rather than leading, whether singing wordlessly or uttering glossolia, whether whispering or reading the poems.

Surprisingly for an album of this length, this double portrait of deep selfhood raises more questions than it answers. The inspirational work of Frida Kahlo similarly involves a negotiation of the private meanings of public utterances, and there is always some mystery in the most detailed portrait. At their hottest moments of interplay the octet, called Metamorphic, submit the protolithic strata of Laura Cole’s personal experience to the heat and stress of group connection, transforming raw material into fine art.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes about music, art and stuff.

LINK: Metamorphic website

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