It’s practically incomprehensible that Lapis Lazuli have only been in my consciousness for a year, given that the first time I became aware of them was at the Canterbury Sound event last October, where, with due respect to the various academics, writers and contributing musicians, they rather stole the show. Scarcely believable because having gorged on their entire back catalogue within the months that followed, they’ve become such a familiar sound to me that the anticipation surrounding the impending release of their fifth album ‘Brain’ was for me, very real. That Canterbury gig was one of the first to showcase a band shorn of the integral sax sound of Phil Holmes – and whilst it focused on two tracks from the then current album ‘Wrong Meeting’ it also featured a band member (bass player Luke Mennis) who had not recorded on that album. So, unbeknownst to me, the band I saw was in transition, not that you would have guessed from a performance that was both compositionally complex, sonically innovative and unbelievably polished.
In retrospect, it is now clear that the band’s sound was becoming more uncompromising, understandably dominated by two guitars and their effects, set against a rhythm section including the extraordinarily versatile drummer Adam Brodigan, who rarely settles into a groove for long. Whilst the first couple of albums flipped between any number of styles, be they Latino, reggae, Balkan or jazz, softening their impact through extended lineups which incorporated brass, flute, accordion, extra percussion, didgeridoo and even occasional vocals, there is a real sense that Lapis Lazuli have arrived at a definitive sound and style, discarding all fripperies (if not necessarily all Frippisms) en route.
So what does ‘Brain’ sound like? The 5 pieces, clocking in at 10 minutes or so each (mere snippets in the band’s history of extended compositions), are guitar heavy, funky and intricate. There’s no jamming here (for that you need to listen to the band’s alternate ego, which I’ll link to at the bottom of this review), just a continuation of the most tightly composed music I’ve heard since National Health, delivered alternately in joyful or tortured fashion. Yet beyond that it’s so difficult to pin the band’s sound down: in an attempt to try and describe it I’ve played it to various people in the rash hope of pigeonholing the music – but when the responses vary from Sonic Youth to Gentle Giant, the Ruts to Rush, you know you’ve got a job on…
What is indisputable is that the centrepiece of the album is ‘Hired Soul’ – which provides the memorable whistle-along themes for this album in the same way that ‘School’ did for ‘Wrong Meeting’. The style smacks of the Eighties, is Foalsesque even, with its anthemic, almost pompous melodies and the fulsome keyboard chords produced by guitar, before one of many forays back into Seventies funk. Any doubts that this is the effect that the band was aiming for are dispelled by the ‘Hired Soul’ official video, the latest in a series by Brodigan, this one clearly a take on aspirational fitness videos from that era with its own ‘Green Goddess’ in the lead screen role. Whilst you’ll find elements of this track impossible to get out of your head, you wouldn’t be able to reproduce more than half a minute if asked to recall it unplugged – as with most Lapis tracks it’s gloriously twisted.
‘And Stay Out’ and ‘Low Key’ are more dominated by recognisable guitar sounds, but no less complex, the latter paradoxically introduced by a Spaghetti Western guitar line which suggests briefly that the band might be straying into Tortoise territory, and the former by that Ruts-like riff. In fact ‘Low Key’ morphs into the wildest guitar thrash-out on the album, memorably captured in brief on the youtube clip ‘Neil Ascends’ here.
But before this, the band have already worked their way through a reggae passage, a stark guitar duet in some indecipherable time signature, brutally punctuated by crashing chords and followed by some ‘La Villa Strangiato’-like noodling. ‘And Stay Out’, is dare I say it, a more conventional series of rock riffs, whilst ‘The Slug’ is the stop start piece that had me laughing out loud during its performance at Kozfest. At the other end of the scale is ‘Falling Line’ , dominated by Luke Mennis’ bass, a Seventies jazz-fusion ballad cheesed out by some Alan Gowen-esque effects, bass meandering and a drum solo augmented by samba hand percussion which Mennis and Lander memorably add to when this piece is performed live. Whilst at times this track veers, quite deliberately, towards muzak territory, the edge is maintained by several ‘wrong’ chord progressions – clever stuff indeed.
For me the prevailing feature of ‘Brain’ is the almost telepathic interplay between the guitarists: Neil Sullivan’s lead is evocative and Phil Milleresque in the way it ekes out a melody; Lander’s rhythm work, amongst the finest I’ve heard, alternates between funk licks and math rock structures. This twin assault on the senses reminds on more than one track of Frederic L’Epee’s multi-guitarist bands Philharmonie and Yang, the latter of whom, like Lapis Lazuli retain a desire to rock through the intricacy. The pair contribute so many memorable passages, weaving in and out of sections which alternately pulverise and gently cajole, a case in point being the ‘Shower Scene’ section of ‘Hired Soul’ an alternative clip of which is here.
Ultimately though, it’s ALL wonderful stuff, a joyous nightmare to review. As one friend put it, Lapis Lazuli set out to confound, and they’ve certainly achieved that..
Postscript: this album is available direct from the band, and a vinyl version includes extra tracks not reviewed here.
‘Shall We?’ – a 30 minute improvisation by the band is viewable on Youtube here: