Review: Decoy And Joe McPhee – Spontaneous Combustion

I try and venture up to Cafe Oto when I can, but I wasn’t there on this occasion. At one point, the Bo’Weavil Recordings page for Oto (an earlier live recording of the group captured back in 2009) claims that Steve Noble’s solo stretch for untethered cymbals “really had to be seen as well as heard”; no doubt a slightly disheartening remark to read for someone with just the audio to go on, although a similar section on Spontaneous Combustion turns out to be wonderful nonetheless. Metal clatters and rattles, with the rhythmic tinkle of drumstick impact backdropped by the anarchic resonances within the cymbal itself – one imagines Noble frantically beating and clamping the cymbals as they shudder loosely across the drum skin, letting them roll momentarily before choking them dead. Deprived of visual indicators, such sounds creep in from nowhere, immediately juxtaposing Noble’s predominantly crisp cymbal splash with a warped, wet sonorousness. The whole record is rich with moments where completely unexpected timbres sidle in without warning, and for those that can’t see the players adapt stance and technique in preparation, it’s as though the instruments have completely contorted in shape or even transformed entirely.

Another notable example arrives about eight minutes into the second side; the band are staggering woozily at this point, with double bass tottering between a handful of low notes and the drums stomping back and forth between bass drum and snare. Suddenly, Joe McPhee squawks with the agonised vocal release of someone driving a stake through their own foot, before promptly collapsing into whining saxophone decay. The transition from human voice to woodwind is absolutely seamless, and without seeing it happen, one is left gloriously clueless as to when it actually takes place. Improvisation gifts a wondrous sense of mystery to the near future, and Decoy truly mesmerise when they perpetuate this mystery into the present moment.

They’re a beautifully co-ordinated collective. When McPhee begins to wheeze into stifled trumpet breaths, the rest respond accordingly: Hawkins’ organ slinks into glistening high notes, Edwards’ double bass moans with a dry, oaky string friction, Noble rides gentle ripples of cymbal wash. Then when the energy levels rise to a peak, the group adapt once more: the organ screeches and rolls around the high registers while strings and percussion telepathically negotiate furious, quick-shifting grooves between themselves. You don’t have to have been there to feel immersed in this impeccably produced live recording, but one can only imagine the sheer buzz of seeing this unfold in the very same room.