Martin Archer's Discus label is the UK's best kept secret, in the sense that far more than the imprint's loyal followers should be aware of its existence. Multi-instrumentalist Archer has built a formidable catalog that is genre-defying in similar ways to contemporaries ECM, Hubro, Sofa, Hat Hut, et al: ostensibly a 'jazz label' (which takes the very meaning of the word 'jazz' to heretofore unconsidered heights of stylistic fancy), Discus has long transcended such literal trappings (further-out Editions of Contemporary Music, natch), which means that Archer uses it as a conduit to release whatever sonic muse he, and that of his fellow artists, begs to pursue. This has resulted in a broad and consistently marvelous array of work that bridges the divide between compositional rigor and improvisational abandon, whipping elements of each into a heady, ultimately bracing and wholly satisfying, stew.
Das Rad (German for "The Wheel", and germane to the band's ever-spinning proclivities) seems to encapsulate and deconstruct the entire history of British avant-rock in one fell swoop. Archer and his compatriots — drummer and synthesist Steve Dinsdale, of grand electro-prog trio Radio Massacre International, and guitarist/loopist/electronicist Nick Robinson — court echoes of everything you loved about UK eccentric rock tropes of the past three decades, and then rocket to the heavens with an experimental zeal few of their colleagues can muster. The interstellar fug of space hucksters Hawkwind peek in from time to time, and myriad Canterbury influences are self-evident, though refracted through a prism that distorts its fabric most enigmatically ("Canterbury Steps"). Even the Pink Floyd-drenched psychedelia that informs Dinsdale's parent band RMI rears its sun-dappled head throughout the lengthier explorations of sister tracks "Porto Steps" and "London Steps", both of which are anchored by Archer's piquant, Surman-esque sax playing. Bottom line is that all anecdotal evidence aside, these fellas are simply having a blast. There's a vivacity to the playing that's absorbing and eventful in a way few of prog's ilk would cop to. Archer's serpentine lines so beautifully enmesh themselves amongst the electronics of "Porto Steps" that you forget it's essentially one long hunk of jammin' dreamdrift, rendered with a diamond-cutter's precision and more ideas than could be found in the deepest topographic ocean.
That the trio enjoys a good riff and isn't afraid to loosen up its confines with something like 'funk' ("Tenser") and/or the wide-open spaces bespoken of free jazz by way of King Crimson ("Sehnsucht") speaks volumes about where 'rock' music can still go after all these years. It's mystifying and surely ignorant when hirsute music buffs speak of progressive rock needing to adhere to a certain established vocabulary that renders it all but inert, calcified into well-trodden modes that hardly progress at all — the new boss, same as the old boss. Archer, Dinsdale, and Robinson sure as hell ain't having none of that jazz; making mincemeat out of the molecular structure of blurt, bleat, and bloop, theirs is a necessary shock to the system, and pretty damn Rad at that.
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