Ornithophobia is Troyka’s third studio album (fourth overall if you include the Parliamentary Jazz Award winning Troykestra live big band recording), but their first for the Naim label. Naim has carved an exciting niche for itself specialising in albums by improvising musicians seeking to cross over in to areas traditionally served by other forms of music. So whilst Troyka are without doubt inspired by contemporary improvised music (particularly New York musicians such as Craig Taborn and Tim Berne), they also tap in to the turbulent attention deficit restlessness of Flying Lotus or Squarepusher, the hard hitting adventurous groove of Deerhoof and maybe even the lattice-like structures and explosive qualities of Dirty Projectors circa Bitte Orca.
The trio’s foundations in diversity and open-mindedness are emphasised brilliantly here on Life Was Transient and Troyka Smash, for which the band invited producer Petter Eldh (a superb musician in his own right) to sample, edit and recontextualise recordings of the band playing. This approach pays real dividends with some absorbing, multi-faceted and surprising music that also manages to stay true to the band’s spirit and purpose. In some respects, it’s not that far away from the approach Teo Macero took to recording Miles Davis – but where that often produced enduring, steadfast grooves, this produces music that delights in quickfire shifts in sound, dynamic and texture (possibilities that are sometimes neglected in electronic or digitally produced music).
In keyboardist Kit Downes (whose music in his own name is very different indeed) and guitarist Chris Montague (Trish Clowes, Colin Towns, Monocled Man) they have two of the most fluent, versatile and adaptable musicians in the UK. Drummer Joshua Blackmore is frighteningly precise, elaborate and exciting – a master of the tricky groove and an important driver of sudden change and impact. Whilst Troyka’s self titled debut eagerly exhibited these three musicians’ tremendous skills, it could sometimes be exhausting and digressive too. Every time the trio struck up some kind of rapport, it would always be directly on to the next idea, without even a pause for breath. Second album Moxxy started to refine the formula, adding more expressive elements, and it’s arguable that the experience of arranging their existing pieces for big band has enabled the band to mature further.
Many of the band’s core characteristics survive intact on Ornithophobia. There is still an abundance of thrilling unpredictability, along with the still impressive execution of very difficult parts and, of course, jaw dropping shredding (just listen to Montague on the title track). But there are also moments of disarming beauty and surprising consistency.
For the former, there are some eerie and prescient opening themes. The opening moments of Arcades are delicate, and lull the listener in to a false sense of security in a piece that goes on to explore extreme contrasts (benefiting greatly from the presence and power of Downes’ hammond organ). The quietly sinister opening of Magpies works brilliantly pitted against an exhilarating breakbeat (it of course then gives way to a dirty, distorted groove).
For the latter, the unfolding ambient atmospheres of Bamburgh hint at Brian Eno or Fennesz and Thopter explores vaguely apocalyptic undertones (it is presaged by a voice describing a devastating Avian virus). Another Northumberland-themed piece, the closing Seahouses, finds Montague conjuring some lush, evocative textures on the guitar, a little reminiscent of Mark McGuire and Emeralds.
Best of all is perhaps The General, where the band seem to really focus and explore. It incorporates a portentous, menacing bass heartbeat, marching snare drum patterns and a theme and changes that are very much in touch with the blues. It also has a purposeful and exciting section for solos that finds the band finding a common empathy. In some ways, it’s the most conventional piece they have written – yet the combination of ideas is also unusual and distinctive. It certainly lingers in the mind in a powerful way.
Troyka are still a band capable of frazzling the brain with abrupt rhythmic and textural shifts, asymmetry and jarring tensions – but they are also now exploring sense, mood and feeling too. The level of detail and thought in the architecture of the music remains fascinating – particularly in the clever use of space and the way in which Downes’ keyboard parts and Montague’s agile guitar lines thread around each other. It is unashamedly cerebral music, but this is a band now finding that they have a powerful beating heart as well as a head.