Review of THE SEALED KNOT 'LIVE AT CAFE OTO' at THE WATCHFUL EAR written by RICHARD PINNELL
Now this is a difficult one. The Sealed Knot are one of my favourite groups of all time. They were one of the first improv groups that I made special trips into London to watch around the turn of the millennium (previously I had just attended whatever the LMC were putting on, often without knowing anything about who was playing), and I have followed them through their five previous albums, and all of their UK appearances up to the point at which they took a break from playing together around 2007. They came back together in 2009 for a concert organised by the Another Timbre label that I wrote a little about here. Now, some four years later, to coincide with another reunion concert in Berlin, the recording of that 2009 show has been released on CD. Its always really interesting to hear CD releases of concerts I attended. Often the mastered, perhaps edited releases sound very different to how I remember the live set. In this case though, quite the opposite, with the music sounding not only very close to how I remember it, but with one or two elements in it, such as Burkhard Beins’ three note repeated synth-like sounds near the end actually so memorable that I was waiting them to appear on the recording, some four years after I first heard them live. These are musicians that are very familiar to me then. Although on this date they sounded quite unlike how they had sounded on any occasion before, they still sounded like The Sealed Knot. Yeah I know, it makes no sense.
Listening to this CD tonight I feel myself repeating what I wrote in that live review four years ago. With the exception perhaps of AMM, I don’t think I ever heard an improv group quite so finely in tune with one another than Rhodri Davies, Burkhard Beins and Mark Wastell’s The Sealed Knot. In their acoustic guise, with Beins playing percussion, Davies harp and Wastell either cello or bass the group often touched on a kind of off centre, not quite looping clockwork, such was the way they could click together in the moment, producing a sound that was very much their own. On this evening in 2009, coming back together after each of the group had been working in different areas, the acoustic instrumentation was replaced by an electroacoustic mix. Wastell, having been playing his tam tam by now for a few years melded it with subtle electronics, as did Davies, playing a small electroacoustically hitched up harp laid flat on the table. Beins’ set-up was perhaps the most radically changed, with virtually no percussion in sight with a lo-fi table of rough electronics replacing it. The music the trio produced on that evening, which is nicely recorded and mastered here, had all of the slowness and attention to texture that The Sealed Knot were known for, but gone are the tightly entwined little musical figures, the little individual but interlocking cogs that turned together to form the whole. Instead the music has stretched out into long passages, laminal overlays of grainy texture and glowing tones, everything slowed down even further so that the interactions take place over minutes rather than seconds. It feels strange, at times nothing like The Sealed Knot, and yet somehow the understanding remains. The music here still sounds cohesive, still works as a whole, but there isn’t quite the originality there that we are used to with this group- the identity they have forged is (no doubt deliberately) put to one side to reflect new ideas that each of the group had evolved into. When the trio played again in Berlin in 2013 they returned to acoustic instruments, but no doubt they sounded different again. Staying still is never an option.
Purely from a perspective of personal taste, despite my usual preference for a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds in music I much prefer the Sealed Knot of albums like Unwanted Object or And we disappear. This may to some degree just be nostalgia on my part, but the more electronic trio on this release seems to lose just a little of what made the trio special. Yes the interaction, the understanding is still there, but the originality, the particular approach, albeit an approach that was always shifting and changing, seems to have lurched wildly away rather than move incrementally as it had in the past, and that movement has left some of the character of the group behind. No doubt this is a momentary thing, maybe a rustiness caused by such a long time apart or the trial and error of finding ways to mix new palettes of sound, and from what I have heard the Berlin gig this year was a roaring success, but Live at Cafe Oto is, for me, a bit of a dip when placed alongside the rest of the group’s incredible catalogue. The problem with being great is that you have a lot to live up to, and that’s probably my issue here. I have no doubt however that I will be front row centre for their next gig and love every minute of it.