And so we come to the real jewel in the trio of shoegaze related releases that have crossed my review pile in the last month. On his recent collaboration with Robin Guthrie, Mark Gardener deliberately avoided the sonic ghosts of the band for whom he is best known, Ride. Meanwhile, the recent EP by New Yorkers, Malka (who share the same publicist as this release), took on the challenge of bringing strands of the original shoegaze æsthetic into the now with mixed results. However, here we get the best of both worlds. Gardener introduces this live set with, “Good evening. Are you ready for a journey into the unknown? We are Pure Phase Ensemble”. His unassuming manner tells me his tongue is planted firmly in his cheek but, then, over the proceeding hour, his rag-tag group of temporary collaborators, do actually take the audience into various states of aural bliss. So we get the musical voice of one of the originators, playing in a context that is clearly evolved from his origins, embracing its strengths, yet simultaneously being fresh and new, unshackled from his own history.
Large mention must, from the outset, be made of exactly who those collaborators are, as well as the context in which they have produced this set. Ray Dickaty, improvising saxophonist and former member of Spiritualized, and Nasiono Records boss, Karol Schwarz, are actually the driving force behind the concept. Each year, as part of the SpaceFest festival they run in Gdansk, Poland, the two invite an internationally renowned musician and a handful of local Polish indie-music types (this time consisting of Jacek Rezner on drums, Kamil Hordyniec on bass, Michal Pydo on voice and guitar, and Michal Stolc on synth and backing vocals), to spend a week workshopping a set’s worth of music which is performed and recorded live at the festival, to be released later. This arrangement was obviously a perfect scenario for this particular incarnation of the the Pure Phase Ensemble as the resulting music is loose, mesmeric, melodic and completely engaging.
There are very heavy nods throughout the set to the kraut end of psychedelia. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that this is the sound underpinning everything that happens. What makes it more than just another enjoyable noodling session, though, is the distinct input of Gardener, particularly his singing, which I felt was a weaker element of his Robin Guthrie collaboration but which, in this collaboration, finds its perfect context. After a six and a half minute build of gentle melodic drone across the first two tracks – ‘Intro’ and ‘Morning Rise’ – Gardener’s voice finally begins and it feels like the shock of diving into cool water on a summer’s day. The music has so far been meandering, gentle and floating. Gardener’s achingly beautiful melody immediately brings the haze into sharp focus. After moving through a couple of verses, with backing harmonies added for good measure, he then settles into a mantra of “‘Cause it’s not over/until it’s over”, which gradually succumbs to being buried beneath the building wash of wordless backing vocal wails, rising guitar fuzz and meandering sax. And that’s just the opening sequence of the set.
The set never drops in its ability to playfully engage from there, while moving through a few distinct moods. The following, epic, ‘Notatki’ builds from a Radiohead-ish electronic opening into a speeding blur of Polish chants, free-jazz sax skronk from Dickaty and circular chord progressions, ending with an almost prog-rock flourish. ‘Zostan na noc’ starts with a distorted bass riff of sawing intensity that somehow settles into an early-80s-Cure-ish meander, but with intertwined, bilingual female/male vocals, with a couple of freakouts along the way. ‘Peter Song’ is the most traditionally song-ish track, with Gardener again dealing in melodic melancholia. ‘Doing My Head In’ rips off the hook from, of all things, Abba’s bubblegum-pop anthem, ‘Honey Honey’, but pushes it right over the top with exaggerated irony “I could eat you all up like a bowl of sweats”, without losing any of it’s charm, before ‘Happy Dancing Woman’ kicks in with a junk percussion loop and Michal Pydo’s soaring dream-pop melody (the track, in fact, also features as a radio-edit bonus, such is its charm).
Across the entire recording, the sense of freedom and joy is palpable. Knowing that this would be a one-off event, and primarily a live one at that, seems to have the effect of allowing all the players the space to not worry about second-guessing themselves, of not polishing away all the initial sparks of inspiration. While well played, it’s also free, noisy and unafraid to stretch out. To say I’ve enjoyed this release the most out of all my recent ‘gaze’ variations is something of an understatement. I’ve loved listening to this recording over and over, losing myself in its repetitive, hypnotic moments, hanging on its melodic highs, its analogue synth blips and noodles, its nods to kraut, new wave, new age, shoegaze, and purepop. A highly recommended album by my tastes.