The saxophone has always occupied an unfortunate territory. Originally fashioned for use in military bands by a clarinetist who desired an instrument with the agility of woodwind and the projection of brass, it then found favour in symphonic ensembles and big bands. Its reputation in popular music, however, is tainted by scores of soft rock solos and 80s riffs, “Lost Boys” clips and the dreaded “Sexy Sax Man” and “Crazy Sexy Sax Guy”. When it comes to that wide banner of dance music, plus ça change. Mr Saxobeat. Calabria. Guido’s “Mad Sax” paired its novelty with crashing timps and warm synths, but that was an aberration. It’s been a pleasure, therefore, to watch the rise of New York’s Archie Pelago, the trio that blends live playing and improvisation with a hefty Ableton setup. Their Resident Advisor podcast last year was a glorious, life-affirming set, its combination of brass and woodwind with electronic beats offering a frisson often lacking in studio-recorded mixes. With “Lakeside Obelisk”, they’ve captured that magic and put down their most accomplished work to date.
Stream: Archie Pelago – Chilly (Archie Pelago Music)
“D’s Diamonds” opens with a slinky piano line reminiscent of (if not borrowed from) Joe Thomas’s “Venus”, which leads towards the frivolous yet expert sax improv from Kroba. The percussion underneath shifts in every section, mirroring the tenor’s meandering focus, these parts underpinned by that unchanging piano line and the occasional flourish of pads. It’s a thrilling opener, joyful and brimming with hopeful excitement, one that contrasts greatly with “Chilly”, a delirious run through gated synths and scattershot percussion. Hirshi’s trumpet leads the way here, punctuated here and there by detuned rap samples and twisted modulations. The title track sees offers dubby basslines and warm sax drones, Kroba’s recorded lines crushed beyond recognition over slightly contained jungle hits.
Turning the record over to weighty opus “Neighborhood Mephisto” we’re confronted with skittery juke rhythms, split sax lines and trance arpeggios. The twists and turns throughout lead the listener on a wild and ritualistic dance, as mischievous as the title would suggest. Midway through, the main theme is taken on by Cosmo D’s emotive cello, at once intimating a brief respite but instead bringing us into a breakneck 160pm. While “Saturn V” continues that frantic pace, its yearning cello, crashing timpani and celestial Japanese sample offers a stillness amidst its own recklessness. Ending the record on such a beautiful note is a wise move, the power of “Neighbourhood Mephisto” not lost but translated into pure emotion. What this release shows more than anything else, is that Archie Pelago aren’t just a here to show off, a group living off a gimmick showing how clever and talented they are. Behind all that talent and showmanship is the ability to craft real, heartfelt music with soul, not just empty bluster.
Archie Pelago – Lakeside Obelisk is out now on Archie Pelago Music. Buy here.