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Recording of the Week,
Sunwatchers - Oh Yeah?
Sunwatchers is a New York-based four-piece that makes a convincing job of synthesizing several disparate influences; the spiritual intensity of Albert Ayler, the sparse driving rhythms and electronics of seventies German prog, Gong’s freewheeling jazz-psychedelia, and a dash of Zappa circa Hot Rats, as well as more recent touchstones like the free-folk of Sunburned Hand of the Man, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Not that you need to be au fait with any of these to appreciate the exciting collision of talent to be found on Oh Yeah?; where they succeed whilst others fail is in the integrity of the end result, making Sunwatcher’s music unique unto itself.
The members met over ten years ago as part of the late avant-garde saxophonist Arthur Doyle’s band, and in keeping with the spirit of social justice that ignited the free jazz movement, they have strived to combine their music with political activism. As their fourth album Oh Yeah? refines the approach that made 2019’s Illegal Moves such a compelling document, adding an improved sense of cohesion throughout to make this feel more like a unified album. The title is a nod towards the Mingus album of the same name, who shared their concern with balancing structure with freedom; no matter how far-out some of these tracks can get, they are actually cleverly structured, never feeling like aimless jamming.
‘Sunwatchers vs Tooth Decay’ throws us straight into freak-out territory with Jeff Tobias’s sax and Jim McHugh’s electric guitar cycling short motifs at a dizzying rate before Jason Robira sets up a motorik beat, buoyed by tight bass patterns from Peter Kerlin. It’s all properly psychedelic, the groove soon serving to launch some suitably lysergic sax and guitar solos, whilst the rhythm section subtly shifts the beats around. The shorter following track ‘Love Paste’ starts off with a good-natured Klezmer feel, building up to some infectious solos and peaking with a collective shout of “Whoo”, adding to the inclusive sense of exhilaration.
‘Brown Ice’ (a cheeky reference to Don Cherry’s classic Brown Rice?) has Tobias’s sax taking the burden of keeping the arpeggios rolling as the others find themselves whirling in and out of frame, their frequent harmonic shifts giving the illusion of the tempo increasing. A darker undercurrent appears in ‘Thee Worm Store’ (John Dwyer’s garage-psyche project Thee Oh See clearly being an influence, and whose Brigid Dawson hand-sewed the tapestry on the front cover), with an oppressive synth tone leading us into a less sunny soundscape, the dissonant improvising here sounding less inclined to ingratiate and make friends with us. They really ramp up the tension towards the end, where I especially enjoyed the fuzzed-out horror organ stabs that threaten to engulf everything in their path. At 20 minutes there’s a filmic, driving-into-the-sunset vibe to the closer ‘The Earthsized Thumb’, with McHugh’s trance-like guitar line clearly taking a lead from the Saharan desert-rock of Mdou Moctar and Tinariwen. The others gradually file in, before dropping us into the mother-of-all-blowouts in the mid-section… I had images of hippies at Woodstock flipping out in the mud spring to mind. It’s a strong finale to an excellent record, one that I am still finding as exciting after multiple listens.