Belatedly by OreRelease date: November 24, 2017
Label: Box Records
It’s an inescapable fact that music sounds different depending on the context imposed upon it. This is doubly true of instrumental music; with no words to evoke any particular imagery or emotion we’re left with nothing but raw sound that and whatever feelings we bring to it to tell the story. So whatever the content of Belatedly the story behind it ought to make it a heart breaker from start to finish. Ore is the moniker adopted by tuba player Sam Underwood, and Belatedly is the record that began as a gift to his father after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Work on the album wasn’t completed before he sadly passed and it went unfinished until Underwood was ready to begin again and complete the album. Hence the title. Given that context a collection of note for note Parliament covers would sound like the heavens were crashing down around you.
Although it is impossible to unknow a record’s background when forming an opinion it’s safe to say that the first half of Belatedly would sound as perfectly elegiac if it dropped through your letterbox on an unmarked CD. Underwood’s Tuba has a breathy, living timbre to it that, in the absence of solo tuba players to compare it to, brings to mind Colin Stetson’s work. For the records first side he’s given minimal accompaniment – ’Silicate’ pairs the stately drone of the tuba with soft palm played drums, mirroring the physicality and pure humanity of the tuba playing. The whole first side is played by Underwood and you can feel his presence in his breath and in the sound of skin on drum skin.
Needless to say the tuba doesn’t get many outings in popular music; it’s more often associated with marching bands, lending something of a martial air to the record. ‘Antimony’ is a fittingly mournful tone for the fallen, a 21 gun salute away from a military funeral. But it’s not just one note sadness on display – opener ‘Scarn’ has something decidedly sinister about it, sounding a little like the kind of music you could imagine Darth Vader likes to unwind to with a glass of brandy by the fire. Underwood playfully calls his sound ‘tuba doom’, which might attract a few confused Electric Wizard fans but doesn’t really tell the story, though ‘Vanadium’ does boast a tuba riff one can imagine being distorted into a doom epic. And the arcane track titles would sit neatly in that company, though it’s maybe a little short on goats/wizards/mammoths/bongs.
The second side of the record invites collaborators into the Ore fold (and names its tracks after them) and the record really opens up with their introduction. ‘Khyam’ features oud player Khyam Allami and at times has an almost atonal jam like structure (or lack thereof). It takes a couple more listens than the more straightforward tracks on the first side to reveal it’s tricks but straight away it hints that Ore may well have teeth as well as a forlorn gaze. On the ominous slither of ‘SOF’ (named for Sophie Cooper who lends her trombone to the track) malevolent drones swirl, sounding like being swarmed by thousands of irate hornets. And then there’s ‘Kayazuki’ (named for Kazuyuki Kishino aka KK NULL) which sets a trap of a solo tuba piece before beats spring loose, the track suddenly sounding like a remix of itself, the tuba barely keeping pace with the rhythm, an uneasy marriage of the organic and synthetic. After side one you wonder if Ore could ever surprise you – by the end of side two you’re not entirely sure what Ore is any more.
And yet it’s ‘Beck’, a second side track featuring baritone horn player Beck Baker, which is the most sombre and moving piece of the bunch. The two brass instruments march gracefully side by side, accompanied by guitar so softly strummed it borders on non-existence, filled with dignity, stoicism and perhaps just a tinge of regret. Perhaps that’s the context talking again. With its tragic back story Belatedly makes for a fitting set of beautiful elegies; without it we have a stately promenade of aching melancholia that just so happens to be accompanied by a more unruly set of intriguing collaborations. Whichever light you view it in Belatedly is one of the years brightest surprises.