Unlike many other artists who started out in a similar genre, Spring Heel Jack is not a group content to rest on their laurels. Years ago, when I first heard their release 68 Million Shades, there would have been no way in the world that I could have projected the career arc that they've had. Instead of treading water like so many of their peers, they've advanced their sound, literally with every album that they release, and show no signs of slowing down. While sometimes that experimentation has led to slight letdowns (Oddities), it's also made for some damn fine listening (Disappeared).
Quickly following up on last years Masses release, the group has again set their sites on further pushing the genre of jazz into realms that it's never quite been before. On that last release, they teamed up with an impressive array of artists, and this one is no different, bringing big names of British jazz (like Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, and Han Bennink) into the mix, along with the always reliable Matthew Shipp on keys and even adding J Spaceman (of Spiritualized) on guitar.
Based on the above names, along with the duo of Spring Heel Jack, most listeners will probably find themselves at least intrigued, and the release definitely lives up to the billing in that area. If Masses were the sound of a new jazz flower blooming, though, Amassed is the sound of it withering, burning, and then being reborn again from the ashes ala a phoenix. "Double Cross" opens the disc with a somewhat lazy interplay between a double bass and sax as chimes and noise creep in with some thick violin swells. Just about the time the tension has built to a healty level, the violin shards off into eerie manipulated plucks, sounding like a thousand tiny crawling insects while the horn and double bass slither like centipedes over it. The track cruises back into a more gentle closing, but the title holds true, falsely leading the listener on before some unsettling moments.
"Amassed" follows it up with the album-titled track and again the beginning part of the track rumbles along nicely with nice interplay between all members before everything explodes into an absolute orgy of sound before trickling out again. Everyone joins in again on "Wormwood," and the ensuing track has so many different layers playing off one another that it makes your head feel a bit delerious trying to take it all in. Wisely, the next track "Lit," strips things down to only the duo of Spring Heel Jack and trumpet player Wheeler, turning in the most beautiful and at the same time unsettling track on the disc. As a simple, watery chime melody loops, Wheeler adds lonely, distant horns, but almost all throughout the track little gutteral noises squirm. It's an odd combo, and slightly disconcerting, but the different times that it cuts out over the course of the track make the subtle melody of the other two instruments even more pretty.
Just in case you hadn't guessed it yet, this isn't exactly an easy release to just plop down and listen to. Even though there are sometimes only four people credited to a track, the wall of sound created on the bulk of the disc (and that's not including when all eight players are going at it) is immense. Granted, it's not squalling bed of noise at all moments, as the group definitely knows how to built dramatic tension, but with so many people adding to the mixture, there is literally always something changing or moving. Those hoping for friendly, toe-tapping jazz will not find it here, as this release and the Blue Series as a whole is about furthering the boundaries of the genre and challenging listeners. Makes your head spin in a good way (most of the time).