Even drum’n'bass acts need to get back to their roots sometimes. Although to call London’s Red Snapper a drum’n'bass act really isn’t fair. Tough to believe it’s been 12 years since their debut Prince Blimey caused a stir among electronica and jazz fans alike. Where most drum’n'bass sampled and looped bits of jazz performance, drummer Richard Thair bassist Ali Friend, and guitarist David Ayers mostly just played live, letting their rhythmic chops provide the frenetic energy. Also, while Red Snapper shared with their peers an interest in dub, their influences went far beyond that. Funk, afro-beat, Krautrock, swing, and “traditional” jazz. Prince Blimey was unique in that it could legitimately fit right into either the “jazz” or “dance/electronica” sections at the record store. That it was issued on Warp records meant it usually was filed in the latter.
Prince Blimey came across as a fun-yet-atmospheric, playful-yet-serious, slightly off-center spy movie soundtrack. Two follow-ups, 1998’s Making Bones and 2000’s Our Aim Is to Satisfy, employed MCs and female vocalists, as was common for any drum’n'bass act at the time. Now, though, drum’n'bass is a term that’s used derisively, if it’s used at all. Over the past six years, Red Snapper have been effectively retired, making do with a couple patchwork records full of remixes, outtakes, and live versions. Now, Pale Blue Dot finds Ayers, Friend, and Thair fully reunited, free of Warp and any electronica hype, and with new sax/clarinet man Tom Challenger on board. Really, is it possible to be uncool with a sax player named Tom Challenger?
That’s a question that need not be answered, because Pale Blue Dot gets back to the raw, eclectic, instrumental sound of Prince Blimey and adds some new twists that keep it from being a complete rehash. Death In Vegas’ Tim Holmes, who along with the band produced Prince Blimey, is back behind the boards. And new listeners, as well as anyone who forgot what kind of synergy these guys can produce, is in for a real treat.
Pale Blue Dot is assembled much like a jazz album. It’s short, with only six tracks plus a couple remixes. On each track, the band apply their unique interpretation to a different style or combination of styles. Yet, as with most distinguished jazz players, everything is unmistakably them.
Opener “Brickred” immediately establishes the band’s musical chops and fondness for bold, Krautrock-inspired rhythms. Ayers’ guitar and Challenger’s clarinet mimic each other for a few bars, before dovetailing together, at which point Challenger’s little riff adds a downright poppy tone to the track. “Lagos Creepers” has an almost jump-jazz feel, Friend laying down a mean double-bass groove while Thair slices’n'dices the hi-hat. When Challenger’s dramatic sax comes in at the chorus, you have your spy caper chase scene moment. “Lagos Creepers” is the Pale Blue Dot track that sounds the most like it could’ve come straight from Prince Blimey, yet it’s done so well that it sounds like a revelation.
Then comes the pinnacle, “Wanga Doll”, on which Ayers does some major lap steel damage during the thunderous rave-up of a chorus. Things get quiet and pensive for the “verses”, boiling the pot until it overflows with a “Yeah!” into that chorus again. It’s down’n'dirty and bluesy in a way that recalls a Charles Mingus composition as much as anything. From there, the drippy dub of “Moving Mountain” acts as a denouement before Challenger’s burst of feedback gradually forms itself into a sax, and the rhythm section brings the heavy funk of “Clam”. Within this context, Ayers’ rockabilly riffing is a brilliant juxtaposition.
And, as effectively and quickly as they’ve brought you up, Red Snapper bring you back down—something they were always deceptively good at. As “Deathroll” flutters in, Challenger’s clarinet is just as mournful as it was jolly on “Brickred”. The expansive, minor-key chorus leads to a sinister, descending refrain, and then that whole pattern repeats. “Deathroll” could almost be mistaken for a lost Smiths instrumental.
The Smiths…Mingus…dub…all on the same record, and in six tracks? That’s the brilliance of Red Snapper and of Pale Blue Dot in particular. They bring it all together, mix it up, and sound like they know exactly what they’re doing. Holmes helps ensure that everything sounds crisp and clean. The drums resonate, the bass rattles the floor, and everything in between is given plenty of room to breathe.
The six-song suite on Pale Blue Dot is so impressive and efficient, the pair of electronic-leaning remixes are rendered an unnecessary afterthought. The band would’ve served themselves better by either sticking with an EP or adding a couple more cracking originals. Despite its brevity, though, Pale Blue Dot leaves you feeling full and satisfied, yet eagerly awaiting Red Snapper’s next move. This thing’s so cool it should come with shades and a bowler.
- Multiple songs MySpace