The Treader label’s guiding question seems to be “Why not?” It was formed after the formerly beat-oriented electronic duo Spring Heel Jack first posed that question — why not confront the free improvisers we like with our pre-arranged electronic soundscapes? — and has kept right on going. Why not ask European free improvisers (Evan Parker, John Edwards. Han Bennink) and American free jazz musicians (Matthew Shipp, Wadada Leo Smith) to play together, or space-rockers and jazzers? The question that About asks is why not put members of This Heat and Hot Chip together with a couple long-standing members of the Treader stable?
While Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor (synthesizer, guitar, drums, Shruti box) is probably the best-known musician here, About is all about This Heat’s Charles Hayward (drums, melodica). Hayward is one of those musicians who couldn’t play any other way than how he plays, even if he wanted to, and the towering, unswerving beats juxtaposed with the brutally simple keyboard lines that are his trademark, define the quartet’s sound. When About succeeds, it’s because the other players engage with Hayward’s unbudgeable approach; it fails when they fail to meet him on his turf. While he’s often played in improvisational settings, he’s worked more as a crafter of one-man performances and installations in recent years, and as far back as This Heat, he has capitalized on the tensions that arise from collisions between fixed and fluid elements, as well as the contrast between the flawed and the just-right. Here, in contrast with most improvising drummers, he rarely wavers from a big beat that rolls through whatever else is happening, like a pitiless driver who has determined that he must take the shortest route to his destination, never mind that it involves driving through the farmer’s market in the town square.
Synthesizer player Pat Thomas (who has played with Hayward in the group Albert Newman since the mid-1990s, as well as on numerous Treader sessions) possesses enormous technique, but he makes the music work most effectively when he keeps it in reserve. He does this by snaking sustained lines inside and through Hayward’s rhythmic matrix, then challenging from within with short, sharp blurts. As is often the case, it’s hard to tell exactly what John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack, Treader co-proprietor) is doing, but I suppose that it is his samples that bring the a-rhythmic clatter to the foreground of “Forgacs” and the background of “Payne.” Taylor is easiest to identify when he plays guitar, which he does to particularly good effect early in “Payne,” where his sparse funk licks mesh with Hayward’s not-quite-drum ‘n’ bass groove. It recalls the moments when mid-’70s Can forgot about being a pop group and lit out for the horizon.
But not everything works so well. The three synthesists struggle to find their footing for much of “Forgacs,” and their efforts bring to mind a posse of keyboard-toting Lilliputians trying and failing to rope in Hayward the unstoppable Gulliver; after a thrilling beginning, “Degraw’s” energy dissipates when Hayward switches to melodica and lets go the reins. This album is drawn from a single day’s sessions; one wonders if something more consistently satisfying could have been culled if the quartet had played together a bit longer.