Interviews Reviews

Review: Splintered Stories by Spike Orchestra — tragic tales, mindless optimism and an impressive density of sound

“I can’t even fit my sax section in my living room,” Sam replied when I jokingly suggested he organize an online living room gig to launch Spike Orchestra’s new album, Splintered Stories.

All joking aside, this is the sad reality of the moment. As the leader of a big band, composer, conductor and trumpet player Sam Eastmond is impacted by the current Covid-related restrictions even more than most musicians.

While pianist Carlos Cipa had the option of doing a living room concert series in the weeks leading up to his latest release and bassist Adam Ben Ezra has been busy organizing very popular Zoom shows to promote Hide and Seek, options like this are not available to someone like Sam. “Everything I do is dependent on getting people in a room and working with them to make sound,” he explained. “In the bathroom by myself, with a camera, I have nothing to say.”

A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with Sam to discuss his new album. Of course, the conversation also touched on the current situation and the way it affects musicians. “In April, I watched everything I had in my diary get canceled,” Sam said. “Everything disappeared. In March, I was just at the point where I was trying to hook up launch gigs for this record. I haven’t done a gig since March. I haven’t hung out and played a gig with musicians since March. We’ve all lost our identity to some extent.”

Indeed, it’s a demoralizing time to be a musician and, to a lesser extent, to be a music writer. It’s hard to work up the enthusiasm to write about music when you haven’t heard a live gig in months and don’t know when you’ll be able to attend your favorite festivals again. That was one of the reasons I was looking forward to speaking with Sam, whose intrinsic honesty, energy and enthusiasm are always infectious. That proved to be the case even in the face of everything that has been happening in 2020.  

When I pointed out that I found Splintered Stories to have a markedly positive, almost optimistic vibe, Sam put on a sad smile. “That’s because all that music was written in 2019, way before all of this,” he said. “It was recorded in October 2019 and it was recorded with every musician in the room live and no overdubs. Everything on that record was created in the moment, in the room, for the people, so there’s an optimism there.”

This upbeat energy, though hard to define, is always present in Sam’s music to a certain degree. It’s there even in the darker moments, but especially in the songs he writes for his big band, which have made for some of the most exciting moments in the Masada catalogue.

“Running a big band is an act of mindless optimism in itself,” Sam joked. “That optimism hasn’t gone away. I still feel like that, but I’m in hibernation. All of that energy is in hibernation. I’m just waiting for the moment when we can be in the room again, together. I don’t feel like I need an audience necessarily but I feel like I need my people in the room. I can’t do anything without them.”

This love for his fellow musicians — his community —stands at the core of everything Sam writes. I was looking forward to hearing how this inward-oriented, community-conscious creative process would reflect in Sam’s first original compositions for the big band since 2015 (the last two Spike Orchestra albums featured arrangements of John Zorn’s Masada Book Two and Book Three tunes).        

From the first moments of “The Pink Shagpile Carpet Story AKA The King Of Spank” there is a perceivable feeling of camaraderie in the way the instruments interact. It made me think of people who haven’t seen each other in a while and are just happy to reconvene.

In typical Sam Eastmond fashion, the opening sequence of this eighteen-minute-long tune is made up of abrupt shifts between dramatic sonic explosions with all of the instruments firing on all cylinders, threatening to tear the song to pieces, and quiet, graceful horn segments that make up some of the gentlest moments on the entire record. This alternation lasts for a few minutes, serving to demarcate the limits of this sonic expanse. Once the perimeter is established, it is time to fill the space with sound.

It was immediately interesting to experience the natural sound of Sam Eastmond’s mind, unconstrained by the language of the Masada songbook. Of course, Zorn’s influence is there (Sam even admitted to thinking of the Masada albums as an apprenticeship for Splintered Stories) alongside the frequently occurring elements of metal, surf, cartoon, classical and jazz. What is different now is that there seems to be a more polished linear narrative to the story of the music, reflecting the book-inspired origin of this project.  

Stemming from a JW3 pitch for the 2019 New Music Biennial, Splintered Stories had the composer traveling around the country interviewing various people about the Jewish experience on a personal level. “It was loads of people telling me little fragments of stories from their lives,” Sam told me during our talk. “I wanted to talk to some really orthodox people and I wanted to talk to some drag queens and everything in between.”

That breadth of experience, emotion and information translates to an impressive density of sound. It feels like different sections of music can be removed and studied as self-contained organisms, like the beginning of “Matriarch Variations,” where the horn section breaks out into a chatter that sounds playful and comical one moment, then wistful or even downright hysterical the next.

The progression between narrative scenes is more elaborate than before, as the jump-cuts of old are replaced with more temperate transitions. The narrative dynamic is dictated by Will Glaser, whose flawless drumming is a consistent highlight throughout (which is saying something when you’ve got an album featuring fifteen world-class musicians). Whether he’s maintaining a sense of direction in the more chaotic moments, counterbalancing the pathos of the horn section with a down-to-earth cadence or just grooving alongside Otto Willberg (bass), Moss Freed (guitar) and Olly Chalk (piano), Glaser always has the right reaction at the right time. On an individual level, I feel like his contribution stood out the most.  

This time, there are more… let’s call them “conventionally melodious moments,” such as the sax theme over the elephantine groove about four minutes into “The King of Spank,” Damon Oliver’s superb tenor solo over a hard rock rhythm thirteen minutes in, the call-and-response trumpet solo midway through “Matriarch Variations” and Olly Chalk’s exciting solo over Otto Willberg’s groovy bassline ten minutes into the same song, which then splendidly transitions into what can only be described as a chase scene between piano and horns.   

The dynamic set-up of the entire album seems to be defined by a sort of annunciatory crescendo. The music generally feels less antagonistic than on its predecessors, with a more evident order, even in the wilder moments. It’s as if a certain creative balance has been achieved, a balance that is best exemplified in the album’s third piece, “Hear & Now.”

The song starts with a melancholic, almost resigned horn intro before a savage drum-and-piano intervention disintegrates — to the listener’s surprise — into a surf section straight out of a James Bond flick, which makes up a big chunk of the piece. The song continues with a series of splendid, at times intertwining solos and finishes with a powerful metal section that features my favorite sax solo on the entire record for its pure Naked City-ness.    

It’s hard to pick a favorite track out of the four extremely lengthy, extremely varied compositions but I would say that “Hear & Now” is where all of the album’s qualities come together to perfection. From a storytelling perspective, the song is flawless, its powerful ending sequence being one of the most beautiful and perfectly executed things I’ve heard in the last few years.

Splintered Stories ends with the big band version of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Slayers,” a song that made its original appearance on Gulgoleth. While I enjoyed both version and the Splintered Stories variation offered an exciting spectrum of sound and musicianship, in the context of the whole album it does feel like it deviates a bit from what had henceforth been a thematically cohesive direction. However, it does retain that annunciatory energy I’ve mentioned before, which ends the album in an appropriately high-octane fashion.

After finding out during our conversation that the songs have quite dark, often tragic backstories, I was left to wonder about my perception of the music as sounding optimistic or encouraging. Eventually, it dawned on me. The answer is that the artistic process was no longer reactionary.

In the Masada music, it was a direct reaction to the creative challenge thrown down by John Zorn while Gulgoleth represented a psychological reaction to a dark, distressing and frustrating time in the composer’s life. That is not to say that the music on Splintered Stories isn’t confrontational. Quite the contrary. But it is no longer reactionary. Thus, the music feels less spastic, more balanced and with plenty of space and uninterrupted time to develop organically.

For Sam Eastmond, Splintered Stories was a bucket list achievement — a record of his own compositions released on the Tzadik label, run by his creative idol. It was a dream come true and the composer rose to the occasion with the best Spike Orchestra album to date and one of the standout releases of 2020.

Get Splintered Stories from spikeorchestra.com if you’re in Europe and Downtown Music Gallery in the US.

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