For a band that still feels and sounds like a breath of fresh air, it’s remarkable that Led Bib are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Remarkably for an ensemble operating in the field of improvised music, their line-up remains unchanged from the group that first assembled for drummer and bandleader Mark Holub’s university project. Led Bib’s music has generally come with the potent, aggressive and urgent aesthetic – the rawness of punk, the lofty aspirations of progressive rock and the improvising language of jazz.
It’s a heady, but sometimes exhausting mix that is very much still in evidence on this album’s exuberant opener New Teles. The duelling alto saxophones of Chris Williams and Pete Grogan, strident and harsh, have always been Led Bib’s calling card, and they begin this tune in screaming unison. Giant Bean veers turbulently between a powerful thrash and expansive, challenging improvisation. The two together constitute a typically thrilling one-two opening punch.
By this album’s third track, however, it is clear that we are dealing with a slightly different beast. Angry Waters (Lost At Sea), composed by bassist Liam Donin, is not initially as choppy as its title might imply, beginning reflectively, to the point of introspection. It very effectively captures a feeling of isolation and despair. The track later broadens out, with a military snare drum pattern and a European-sounding melody slightly reminiscent of Seb Rochford’s saxophone lines for Polar Bear. By its conclusion, Angry Waters has reached an incandescent level of intensity, but it is all the more effective because of the unusual and unexpected the journey the music has taken.
Angry Waters is certainly not the only moment of surprise on The People In Your Neighbourhood. Recycling Saga, one of the album’s finest tracks, begins with a delicate, whispered theme and almost feels wistful or romantic. With Toby McLaren on piano rather than a more usual distorted electric keyboard, the improvisation also seems to take a more spacious and thoughtful approach. Plastic Lighthouse draws on some of the swagger and movement of ’60s psychedelic pop.
Pete Grogan has also contributed compositions to this album, and the greater democratisation in the writing appears to have resulted in satisfying variety. Grogan’s The Roofus initially exploits the dual saxophone frontline’s trademark angular harmonising, but subsequently threatens to explode into some fiery improvisation. Unexpectedly, Holub continues to hold down a propulsive groove, and the result is a series of bass and drum-driven contexts for improvising that strongly recalls early ’70s electric Miles Davis. When the original theme returns at the end, it feels more oddly comforting than provocative, so far have the musicians travelled in the interim.
Keeping the intensity and power of their previous work, but much more agile and versatile in its approach, The People In Your Neighbourhood feels comfortably like Led Bib’s best work to date. The interaction and communication within the ensemble is palpable, and it comes as no surprise to discover the album was recorded live without the use of headphones. It has an admirable attack and vibrancy, but also moments of real poignancy and surprise.