Extremophile staggers rather than swings. Stumbles rather than grooves. I grimace as the drums stall and speed up, like fawn hooves flailing for purchase on an icy surface, as guitar and saxophone swerve overhead like counterbalancing limbs, and Lash’s own contrabass churns between wonk and skew. Like a clown with a cream pie, the Quartet defy the inevitable fall for a comical length of time, teasing me with the façade of improvisatory chaos. They never fall over. This theatrical arrangement of giddy sways and sudden missteps is, of course, all for show, feigning imbalance and danger to snub the drudgery of straight, safe, equidistant strides, parading teeter-totter and tempted fate without ever actually nearing collapse. Such is the mastery of the players at work. There is no genuine risk. Extremophile can splay into all kinds of dissonant mess, and the Quartet can be safe in the knowledge that they’ll always have the ability to tug everything swiftly back into line if needs be. As if to demonstrate this fact, the record is punctuated by these little passages of melodic synchronicity, with woodwinds mimicking eachother precisely before veering back to the disorderly brink.
While tracks like “Mr S.B.” spend nine minutes in this jagged, precarious funk – Alex Ward’s guitar slurring out solos, Ricardo Tejero’s saxophone thrusting upward like a startled horse – pieces like “Slailing” press slowly and anxiously into dissonant intervals, sustaining slanted harmonies like advanced gymnastic poses, spread out over silence by the patient, resting-pace recuperations of breath and bowing arm. Even at a snail’s pace, the kilter is still very much off. And then we hurtle into the 14-minute conclusion of “Mixed, Mixed”, and I’m led to doubt my faith in the Quartet’s ability to reassemble itself: the energy turns feral and vigorous, with fingers bleeding against guitar strings and sticks puncturing the skins of tom drums, abandoning the thread that leads back to equilibrium and instrumental authority, the members losing themselves in a whirl of fire and impulse. The track melts into a pool of wounded whining and whimpering, with ride cymbals like eyelids blinking after black-out. Was that all for real? Or was it all part of the show?