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Seven that Spells: Future Retro Spasm

img  Tobias Fischer

It hardly registers as a surprise if the press release should refer to Future Retro Spasm as „Kraut“ even if the album bares no resemblance whatsoever to the formations that originally inspired the genre in the 70s. The terms has, after all, always held slightly different connotations depending on one's geographical location. In its German home, it came to describe an approach of culling something from nothing, of honouring the original goal of rock by forgetting about the time-honoured ways of getting there. Virtuosity meant nothing. Knowledge meant nothing. And yet, it wasn't that the scene outright rejected the notion of musicality. Rather, the inability of simply copying English and American groups from the realms of blues, psychedelia and rock resulted in a music which seemed to exist outside the borders of these established styles. Process, time and space became essential and so did factors like a sense of community between the members of a band, which would often live together, frequently rotate instruments during a piece and cull albums from a variety of sessions or from a single extended improvisation. In short: The urge of formulating and expressing ideas, both on a musical and philosophical level, was no longer  boxed in by tradition or a supposed lack of education – offering a sense of freedom even the alternative music business had long ceased to offer.

If looseness was one of the keys to the original Kraut philosophy, then Seven That Spells are its exact antithesis. Fronted by Niko Potońćnjak, the band have, over the seven years of its existence, developed a level of monolithic tightness and metronomical precision that would put most sequencers to shame. The physical pulse and psychoacoustic phase shifting effects of the minimalists are making themselves felt on pieces like „Olympos“, with its hypnotically cascading reed-lines and „G“, whose opening bars sound decidedly like a breathing exercise ahead of an early Philip Glass performance, before entering a sweeping stream of melodic and rhythmical fugures. The reference to New York's downtown scene is particularly intriguing, as someone like Steve Reich has recently attempted the fusion of Rock and Contemporary Composition from the other side of the fence – and, truth be told, these high-tension flows of energy and imagination are certainly no less evocative and inspiring than Reich's on a widely praised piece like „2 x 5“. At the same time, the powerful propulsion of these broken-chord-lines is further underpinned by a furiously grooving  section of brutal, metal-drenched bass-stabs and hard-hitting funk-patterns, which, on the one hand, instill the saxophones' tireless arpeggios with an even more relentless spine and, on the other, counterpoints their strictness with a more organic swing. Seven That Spells are mainly working with a seemingly simple fusion of close ensemble play and individual freedom - yet their pieces, nervously oscillating between the two, hinge on the epiphany-like moments when one transitions into the other and the gravitational centre of a piece abruptly tilts.

As a result of this flexible take on structure, the entire conventional balance of the band is turned upside down. On the two opening tracks, it is arguably drummer Stanislav Muškinja who is leading the pack, as his equally straight-forward and intricate shuffles are taking on a quasi-thematic character perfectly on par with the rest of the formation. On „The Abandoned World of Automata“, meanwhile, his role is reduced to playing a plain and simple four four time beat in sync with a romantic and all but obsessively repeated guitar lick for all but the entire length of the piece, while the true thematic development is taking place, almost secretively, underneath their surface: Narantxa delicately leading his bass through a string of variations akin to a baroque ground bass and the saxophones gradually growing from long, sustained, textural notes into a tonally ambiguous frenzied chatter. On the nervous and disparate „Terminus Est“, meanwhile, the band breaks apart into its individual components, each musician exclusively focusing on his own part. And yet, their actions, as outwardly unconnected as they may seem, retain their coherency, interlocking, as if guided by some mysterious will, into a liquid continuum of  themes and thoughts.

The reason for this impression of organisation within what could easily be construed as complete chaos is that Seven That Spells, despite their obvious aversion to the predictable verse/chorus schemes of pop music or the robotic repetitions of electronica, are never making free improvisation their god. Instead, they have found their own, personal take on form, working with a fixed set of elements per piece, which are constantly shuffled and recombined to create both a sense of change and continuity. There is no mystery to this process, which is plain and simple for the listener to observe and follow, and yet it never comes across as simplistic or trivial. Aforementioned „G“, as just one example among many here, opens with the solo-guitar repeating an F for two bars before being joined by saxophone and, switching to G and later to D, by bass and the rest of the band. Over the course of the uncannily unfolding action, the pattern will serve both as a rhythmical backbone appearing at different places of the piece, as well as a foundation for the melodic action, with themes taking its fundamental notes as their point of departure.

On other occasions, the lyrical nature of the music is becoming more prominent, suggesting an affinity for a genre one would certainly not expect here: folk. And yet, the link makes perfect sense, as the danceability of these pieces harks back to a time when the separation between the worlds of serious and popular music was not yet in place and the act of putting an audience in a trance by integrating physical movement and intellectual stimulation was considered a virtue. It is here that Seven That Spells intersect with the aims of the 70s. Far more than a clearly delineable style, after all, Kraut was an attitude towards conceptualising, composing, performing and selling one's music. It was about abolishing prejudice, opening oneself up and tearing down walls obstructing the plain and simple appreciation of music. Geographical location means nothing here. No wonder the band can rightly claim this badge of honour for themselves: Just like their music, these are universal aims understood by everyone everywhere.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Seven That Spells
Homepage: Beta-lactam Ring Records

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