In the developing narrative of Troyka’s music you can always rely on the compositions never settling on or flogging the same groove for long. Part of their trademark sound it has rapidly become the norm at album level too – for example 2012’s triumphant ‘Moxxy’ was transformed for the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival into the orchestral behemoth “Troykestra”, recorded by the BBC and later released on CD for posterity. The latter should not have worked, the tight small group interplay being integral to the Troyka sound up to that point, but it went further garnering praise and plaudits from those who heard it – even winning the prestigious UK Parliamentary Jazz Awards album of the year in 2014.
Were we to play a game of ‘what will Troyka do next’ then, a reasonable expectation would be that the new album develop the “Moxxy” sound and, maybe, seek to integrate the ‘Troykestra’ on a couple of show piece tracks, budget permitting. A dystopian vision of a Britain under attack from an avian virus that makes its inhabitants sprout feathers and turn into half bird monsters was probably not so high on the list of potential paths that the band might seek to tread! The idea seems to have developed from a slightly cruel band in joke at the expense of guitarist Chris Montague who has a fear of birds stemming from a traumatic early childhood experience with a dead seagull. Slightly silly though the concept is, it succeeds precisely because of that element of the unexpected – far too many musicians are content to simply record what they are playing live, stick a band photo on the cover, and not think any further about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how best to present it to the world. Not many would come up with the musical and conceptual ideas of Ornithophobia and even fewer would be able to execute them so well – the comic strip sleeve by Naiel Ibbarola being a case in point.
Musically the sound has definitely developed – Blackmore’s electronics being much more prominent this time around on tracks like “Bamburgh” with its ‘Frippertronics’ feel or album closer “Seahouses” which feels as if intended to be an ambiguous ‘after the crisis has passed’ piece. A piece like “Troyka Smash” uses Downes’ post rock, or math rock, keyboard textures over a breakbeat – adding to the sci-fi dystopia feeling but keeping an element of the live band sound from previous albums. Unexpectedly the combination of the keyboard and the occasional return of Moxxy’s wonderful angular guitar sound on tracks like “Magpies” end up being reminiscent of prime ‘Moving Pictures’ era Rush in the quieter sections, but in a good way of course.
In part the development of the sound has been driven by the increased studio access afforded by Montague’s job as a teacher at a well-known English private school. This means that the recording process has been spread over a longer period making it more considered, less reliant on live takes, with time for more double tracking of guitars and percussion overdubs than previously. This in turn led to the band seeking help mixing the more complex recording from Peter Eldh, himself a noted bass player with the likes of Django Bates and Marius Neset. Eldh’s contributions extend beyond mixing however – his studio expertise and knowledge has helped the band push the sound more in the direction of the jazz influenced electronica of, say, Flying Lotus. This was always an aspect of their music but on ‘Ornithophobia’ it is much more prominent resulting in a more modern sounding record that fits the futuristic subject matter particularly well.
Sci-Fi dystopias are often a coded way of speaking about the present and the album catches the feeling of paranoia and division in 2015 Britain well. The odd section of traditional jam band blues rock aside, Troyka have succeeded in updating their sound while still keeping in place the elements and quixotic switching between them that characterised their wonderful earlier records. It’s a sound that feels in tune with the musical times too – when the likes of Vijay Iyer, Jaga Jazzist and GoGo Penguin are exploring or referencing modern electronica in an improvised setting then it really is time for the wider jazz world to take notice. On this evidence, Troyka are right up there with the best of them – although given their capricious nature as a band, the next step is just as likely to be entirely acoustic recorded live entirely on 18th century instruments! Highly recommended.