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Scatter - Surprising Sing Stupendous Love

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Artist: Scatter

Album: Surprising Sing Stupendous Love

Label: Cenotaph

Review date: May. 10, 2004

It’s often easier to delineate between play-acting and drama, mimicry and reverence, than it is to explain why that distinction is valid. Susan Sontag identified “camp” as putting quotation marks around a word or concept that had once been without them – the same thing inevitably happens during the appropriation of any musical form after its first life has slipped into the dustbins of recorded history. While there's nothing innately wrong with quoting a style and stripping it of its original context, there's always the danger of it sounding like the Make-up – pure form with a curious lack of whatever made that form potent originally. But what a lot of people miss when criticizing (or praising, for that matter) musicians and bands that tread the line between imitation and quotation is that, usually, their influences just happen to be the most recent popularized versions of persevering and ever-changing sounds and styles. To criticize a band today for ripping off the Psychedelic Furs is a little like denigrating the Rolling Stones for imitating Bo Diddley. You might as well criticize Mick Jagger for copying slave gospels.

Scatter, a Scottish ensemble with varied instrumentation and an eclectic style, goes straight for the roots – Surprising Sing Stupendous Love, released stateside on Pittsburgh’s Cenotaph Audio, shows Scatter’s players to be incredibly well-informed, musically and historically. Their first record travels back in time to 1960s free jazz and then on further to draw from traditional West African music; it travels horizontally, too, assimilating free-folk, Celtic and Americana sounds. The danger of such eclecticism is that the combination of various styles and influences will be experienced by the listener as admirable at best or, at worst, an attempt to obscure a lack of any natural style with pastiche. While this record borders on schizophrenic at times, the majority achieves an impressively intricate, if meandering, tapestry of sounds and styles. The various musical forays come across as exciting discoveries rather than bland studies.

Scatter's exuberance probably owes much to their collective dynamic – the group shares a guitar player with fellow Glasgow residents Franz Ferdinand; other members sometimes moonlight with Vibracathedral Orchestra, and Surprising shares that group’s poetry of shimmering prolonged tones. Drummer Alex Neilson recently appeared on a record with Richard Youngs on VHF and the band’s European label, Pickled Egg, is also home to such venerable groups as Volcano the Bear and Bablicon.

Though Surprising is a fairly accessible record, it harnesses the loose feeling of communal experimentation akin to that of the various groups involved with the 1960s and ’70s free jazz scene and contemporaries like No Neck Blues Band. Scatter’s sensibilities tend toward structured improvisation and the adoption of diverse musical forms and instruments, from the celebratory jazz of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra to the musical traditions of Eastern Europe and the British Isles, invoking the primitivist-modernist compositions of Bela Bartok along the way.

Despite the mélange of styles, the dynamic is fairly consistent: drawling melodies slowly grow, producing waves of thunderous excitement. Horns and flutes dance around syncopated rhythms anchored by simple, repetitive bass lines. Scatter generally avoids the pointillistic elements of free jazz while retaining some of its spontaneity, knowing when to follow a simple melody, as it does for most of “Alternations of Pasture and Urban Conurban.”

The first song, “Orbling,” begins with waves of lackadaisical vocals, banjo, horns, and percussion falling together around a sustained tone, before settling into a straight-forward rhythm with chanted vocals and cascading brass lines. The piece eventually features a prolonged spoken word rant. The few times spoken word appears on Surprising are regrettable; it’s not that the words themselves are bad, but they do draw attention away from the whole, crowding the other musical elements. It is at these few points that the cacophony bred by spontaneity is overwhelming. But that’s also intrinsic to the nature of improvisation – it’s difficult to sculpt one element without affecting others that play off and react to it.

The rest of the record jumps from percussive clatter to psych-folk, from Coltrane-style jazz to a traditionalist maraca and marimba song. “National Magic” is an Eastern European-style waltz with exuberantly vocal melodies. At the song’s peak, after a frantic build-up, someone in the background screams “Yeah!” as the horns suddenly fall away and the bass locks into a simple groove with the drummer. It’s difficult to resist a record in which the musicians themselves can’t contain their enthusiasm – this moment is not musically astounding, but is astoundingly endearing, and memorable. I find myself listening harder to hear the celebratory cries in the background, either to better access that excitement, which transcends any influences, or because Scatter graciously presumes that the listener is already a part of it.

By Alexander Provan

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