Phil Robson – Portrait In Extreme
(Lyte Records LR050 digital. Album Review by AJ Dehany)
Portrait In Extreme is an approachably avant-garde extended player that presents a thematic exploration of ‘extremity’ from the fertile musical mind of UK guitarist/composer Phil Robson. Recorded under the ‘extreme’ remote circumstances of late lockdown, the eight-track sequence strikes out into left-field musical directions (sometimes called ‘extreme’) and reflects on aspects of a necessarily ‘extreme’ itinerant life, one of mad leaps such as relocating from England to New York and playing with everyone from Dave Liebman to Barbra Streisand. As a Portrait In Extreme it is well-named for presenting sides of Phil Robson that we might be less familiar to those who might only have really seen him accompanying his partner the incomparable Irish jazz singer Christine Tobin.
It’s a lot of fun. What it is about this digital release that makes you listen up isn’t just the typically strong creative playing but its unpicking of conventional construction and composition in a restless sequence of stylistic experiments for guitar and electronics, with some stirring quasi-industrial drum loops from David Lyttle. After some ruminative post-classical synth ambience, opening track “Rumours Abound, Energy Persists” volte faces into thrashing guitar mayhem. “I’ve Got It” rattles with wild wonky robotic arpeggiated noise. Closer “The Master” is full-on Sabbath-style widdly metal. On “So Many Bees” a sound sample presumably recorded in the Irish countryside of County Roscommon where Phil has been based since the start of 2020, is indexed by the laconic observation of a lugubrious voice saying “So many bees” and leaving it to the listener to imagine whatever apian invasion might betoken catastrophe or everlasting honey.
Guitar-centred postmodernism naturally boxes in the shadow of John Zorn and his endless inventions. Portrait’s lockdown feel of disconnection and reaching out in spite of impossible exploded circumstances reminds me most of a strange little album that Zorn himself played on by Mike Patton called Pranzo Oltranzista which was recorded in hotel rooms while on tour. Portrait In Extreme has some of the same deliberate scrappy notebook feel, however so polished in its playing and design (with a typically punchy master by Alex Bonney). It’s funny that the dislocations that colour both Patton’s Pranzo and Robson’s Portrait come from the opposite sides of interminable travelling and infuriating incarceration.
Portrait In Extreme is touted as an EP, but it’s eight tracks, it’s half an hour, I mean it’s an album isn’t it. Each of its shortened episodes could easily stick around a lot longer, but its experimental restlessness gives the sequence a pleasing lightness of touch. The nomenclature situation is similar to what’s happening a lot in pop hip hop, most recently with the exceptional Tierra Whack releasing a “mixtape” which is clearly a new original album… but calling it a ‘mixtape’ seems to take the pressure off releasing a capital-a Album. In this case an E.P. might denote/connote a more experimental venture that ought to be appreciated in a different way to a formal or more conventional album.
The shorter EP format would perhaps please Brian Eno, who has lamented that when a band (we’re probably talking about 70s prog rockers let’s be honest) goes into the studio to record an “experimental” record they somehow manage to come out with a triple album of the stuff, whereas what actually happens, in science as in music, is that most of the time the experiment will fail. This is so even in jazz and improvised music, which is by its nature experimental, dealing with unknowns (whether known or unknown). You might be better off to just, you know, write something. It’s one of the absolute pleasures in what we call ‘the music’ to hear great musical minds thinking out loud. For however ‘extreme’ the outcome might be, experiments are better off being performed than left unperformed. The results – as here – are often well worth hearing.
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
Portrait in Extreme is released today 25 March on Lyte Records