REVIEW: Submotion Orchestra and Catching Flies at the Barbican (2015 EFG LJF)

Submotion Orchestra. Photo credit: Dan Medhurst/Ninjatune


Submotion Orchestra and Catching Flies
(Barbican. 22nd November. 2015 EFG LJF. Review by Adam Tait)

There’s something about the understated elegance of the Barbican hall that makes musician/DJ Catching Flies, accompanied by a guitarist and saxophonist, look a little bit small as he takes the stage. Considering he only debuted his live show 18 months ago, it’s a big place to find himself, helping to close the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Fortunately, he’s something of a musical TARDIS. The content is far, far bigger than its container. Opening with icy, spectral samples, tense tones that hang above the audience, his compositions are immediately captivating. Sax flourishes add enticing adornments as the taut anticipation steadily builds until the resounding baselines - Catching Flies’ musical meat on the bones - make a thunderous first appearance.

And after the glassy stillness of the opening moments, Catching Flies shows how easily he can fill a space. The knotted, rigid combination of engineered bass and drums counterbalance the serenity of his murmuring samples. It all comes together to make something enthralling and cinematic and enveloping.

But Catching Flies is at his best stitching together these glittering, unfolding soundscapes with garbled vocal snippets and oriental synth sounds, happily moving from a few bars of hip hop-inspired grooves toward house inflicted throbs and back again via moments hard to pin down.

Submotion Orchestra, by contrast, are preceded by a reputation for making mammoth sounds and challenging venues to contain them. In these acoustically impressive surroundings expectation ahead of their set, with an expanded lineup no less, is understandably electric.

Feeding off the crowd’s anticipation, the Leeds outfit open with the glorious build up of Intro, taken from second album Fragments, before delving into the sweeping, soaring duo of Perfection and Sunshine.

The additional musicians make an immediate impact. The band’s already expansive compositions not only grow still broader, but also become more detailed, are filled in and elaborated on by the string quartet and extra three horn musicians.

And while Submotion’s live execution has always been a startling absorbing experience, the impact of this particular performance is a step beyond. The combination of violins and Ruby Wood’s voice on Worries is genuinely tear-jerking. Time Will Wait’s rolling rhythm is both mesmeric and magnificent. Over and again they raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The ebb and flow of the music is entrancing.

That’s not to say any of the usual chest rattling noise is absent. Granted the volume seems a little lower on this occasion, but instrumental maelstroms like Thousand Yard Stare are a swift reminder of what Submotion are about.

Perhaps it would have been nice to see the band tackle some of their material less obviously suited to this sort of musical expansion. It would have been fascinating to see how a string addendum would fit into the uncompromising Chrome Units, or dance orientated It’s Not Me It’s You. But with those quivering notes soar behind Wood reaching for the breathtaking high notes during Blind Spot, it’s difficult to find room for complaint.

Submotion are, if not unique, unrivaled when it comes the marrying grinding sub-bass with piercing blasts of brass and thrilling melodic runs. On record it can be easy to forget how fantastically intricate their music is. Seeing it played out in such a sedate setting brings their ingenuity to the fore.

When they started to attract attention in 2011 they were humbly branded an alternative dub step act. Dub step’s moment has passed while Submotion have devised ever more mesmeric way to show their musical might. And watching them play ‘Finest Hour’, their breakthrough track, as they close their set for the EFG London Jazz Festival is a wonderful reminder of how far they’ve come, and how much further they’re likely to go.

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