Schnauser — Altra Seccatura
Ever since his work many years ago with the Lucky Bishops, songwriter and tune-smith Alan Strawbridge has demonstrated a penchant to create pithy and melodic songs that are supported by ear-friendly choruses and incisive observations on the state of the world.
Altra Seccatura is Schnauser's seventh album. During their long existence, the band has shown an ability to deliver short pieces of song-based music that includes several interesting changes in tempo, and many unusual interludes.
Such an approach is arguably not normally associated with songs that employ a verse and chorus structure. As well as demonstrating their prowess in delivering clever songs, Schnauser have also been equally adept at creating and performing longer pieces of music.
Their excellent album Protein for Everyone, demonstrated the band's mastery of both approaches. It is justifiably viewed as one of the band's best releases to date. Their last album Irritant released in 2017 was also equally well-received.
When describing Irritant for DPRP, I wrote: "The frequent use of punchy, fun-loving, full-bodied tempos led by the saxophone, gives the whole album a reassuring cloak of familiarity, that recalls the foot-tapping, hat-tipping rhythms of Madness, and the eccentricity of the Bonzo's. Added to this enjoyable recipe, is Schnauser's consistent ability to insert a quirky vibe into their compositions that is redolent of the indie-pop of the early 90s and the psychedelia of the late 60s."
This description is also relevant for much of Altra Seccatura.
Indeed, Schnauser's music continues to contain an interesting stylistic mix. The Canterbury-inspired tints that so beautifully coloured Protein for Everyone, have largely been put to one side for Altra Seccatura. Nevertheless, the concluding track does include a cerebral, shifting organ outro that will have fans of Soft Machine raising an eyebrow and throwing their hands up in delight.
The other influences that appear to be prominent in Altra Seccatura include psychedelia, a hint of Brit-pop, the use of vocal harmonies as a melodic device as perfected by Brian Wilson, and a healthy dollop of the type of social observation frequently associated with Zappa. I also found that the story-telling style of Positive, with its off beat instrumental parts and vivid message, was reminiscent of the more recent work of Momus.
There are no lengthy suites or compositions on Altra Seccatura. The longest piece clocks in at just over six minutes. Consequently, there are no lengthy instrumental passages and the amount of exploration of different ideas within a tune is somewhat constrained. Nevertheless, this is an album brimming with ideas. Musically or lyrically it always has something interesting to say.
The album begins brightly with Obligations. It includes many of the elements that makes Schnauser's music so easily recognisable. It is a tightly-spun piece of concise writing, that has a catchy chorus, but still has room for an excellent keyboard break to satisfy the prog-pop leanings of the band. The tune is lyrically astute and has a healthy amount of humour thrown in for good measure.
Strawbridge's vocal range and delivery may not appeal to everybody. It travels in the higher registers, and on occasions has a fragile quality. However, I think it works well in the context of the music and some of the harmonies are impressive and very appealing.
The use of repeated phrases such as 'The Charge is' in tunes like Positive and as 'Forever' in the aptly-titled Forever is very effective. Nevertheless, by the end of the album the similarity of the vocal stylings in each tune has the potential to induce a feeling of listener-fatigue.
It occurred to me when listening to the album that Schnauser have a knack of presenting something that superficially sounds familiar, but is totally unique. For example, a section within Waltz Of The Four Dark Corners was very reminiscent of Pretzel Logic-era Steely Dan. The use of waltz and tango melodies and rhythms in pieces such as, Waltz and Bistro create an accessible starting point for the tunes, but it was also fascinating to see how the band utilise and develop such recognisable rhythms into something demanding attention and packed with many unexpected elements.
Overtime, several of the tunes contained in Altra Seccatura have had a habit of embedding themselves in the memory. I guess it's a testimony to Schnauser's art that I have found myself inadvertently humming parts of the songs for no reason.
The band perform well as an ensemble. The sax is frequently used as to punch out rhythms, and keys are used to good effect to move things along. The line up on the album consists of Dino Christodoulou (tenor and soprano saxophone), Duncan Gammon (vocals, GEM Jumbo Organ, Hohner Planet, Korg MS-20 Synthesiser), Alan Strawbridge (vocals, bass, guitar) and Jasper Williams (vocals, drums, Percussion), with Jon Hare guesting on trumpet and accordion.
I enjoyed the catchy nature of the album, and found enough variation in the band's fresh approach to song-writing to play the album repeatedly. However, to my ears at least, the mix is rather cluttered when all members of the ensemble are performing. Consequently, my enjoyment of the album was somewhat limited by the album's sonic qualities.
Nonetheless, despite feeling that individual instruments do not have enough space to breathe in the mix, there are numerous things to appreciate and enjoy about Altra Seccatura. It is fresh, it is tuneful, frequently enjoyable, and satisfyingly offers enough quirky moments to surprise listeners and maintain their attention.
I am looking forward to observing how Schnauser continue to develop their unique and idiosyncratic approach to prog.