Album Reviews

The Golden Age Of Steam – Tomato Brain

(Limited Noise) UK release date: 4 December 2020

The Golden Age Of Steam - Tomato Brain Who knew that jazz could be so unsettling? This is first thought of James Allsopp’s latest venture with The Golden Age Of Steam project. It has eight years since Allsopp reconvened this troupe on the album Welcome To Bat Country, a work which established his fascination for the absurd and the inner depths of his creative enigma. On Tomato Brain, Allsopp goes further out of any musical realm than what might be deemed listenable.

The album is more a conceptual suite than a series of compositions, with the body of the record entitled Loftopus spreading over six parts and ending with the title track Tomato Brain. As the parts were recorded in one take, the weird feeling being conjured is both instantaneous and impactful.

From the off, the suite is eerily mind-bending. Allsopp forces the listener to think as well as listen by plotting each fragment of sound as though it were performance art. The sequencers are reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s ground-breaking 1973 album Sextant, with their cosmic water-like tones. Yet the calm sounds are blurred with a solemn voice echoing like a subconscious afterthought. Allsopp introduces to us to a virtual reality that seems way beyond comprehension; it is as if we’re in a video game that we can only access subconsciously.

In the second part of the suite Allsopp embeds a sombre tenor saxophone over the radiophonic sounds, in so doing creating a piece of work from entirely different realms that is as otherworldly as that sounds. The layers built up create a musical vortex that ascends into a new reality along each part of the track, bringing obscure drama with each addition of new instruments.

The record also features well-known mavericks in drone and the avant-garde, with Kit Downes, Alex Bonney and Tim Giles amongst the featured musicians. (Allsopp also heads drone and avant-garde with London-based Sly And The Family Drone and Snack Family and has recorded with the likes of Dr John and Jamie Cullum.)

The electronics act as a blanket to each part of the composition, and their menacing presence builds a warped dystopia that could only have been made by free improvisation in an artistic space. The final two parts of Loftopus (5 and 6) are strung together by percussive drums combating the ominous electronic blanket of sound which dominates the suite, ending in a misshapen Kandinsky-esque arrangement that is both surreal and a little frightening. The effects of Shamanism, occulture and the absurd come to fruition to complete a composition which seems like a reimagining of Holst’s The Planets with the help of the Sun Ra Arkestra and inspiration from David Bowie’s Low.      

Then with the final track, Tomato Brain, we voyage into the land of surreal shanties about cheese and tomato sandwiches while plugging into a virtual wall of noise. Who would have thought a man eating cheese and tomato sandwiches could be so disconcerting? It takes surrealism too far, ultimately, and is a warning that you shouldn’t get too enticed by the description. Not that Allsopp gives you much of a chance.

Allsopp achieves noise from another planet that is too unsettling to entirely understand. Tomato Brain is a record almost too abstract to criticise, and too hard to commend. It is both extraordinary and ugly.

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