Published on 19th February 2020
Alex’s Hand – Hungarian Spa
Shock! Horror! On Robert Wyatt’s birthday, 28th January 2020, Kellen Mills and Nic Barnes have announced that they have disbanded Alex’s Hand. I feel somewhat shortchanged as I found the band only after what has turned out to be their penultimate album, KaTaTaK, released in 2017. After falling immediately in love with the crazy charms of that album, it was two long years before Hungarian Spa was released late last year. Quite frankly, having listened to all I’ve found from the band while waiting for the release of Hungarian Spa, they have at least gone out on a high. This is a brilliant, if bonkers, album.
Alex’s Hand is a band that doesn’t really conform to genres, so depending on where you read about them, they’ll be described as jazz, avant-grade, RIO, etc. Handily, the band uses all these as tags on their Bandcamp page, too. And when I say band, though there are multiple players on each album, Alex’s Hand is essentially multi-instrumentalist Mills and drummer Barnes. In fact, go to the Bandcamp page, and on the right-hand side you will be informed that Alex’s Hand is just Kellen Mills.
My introduction to Alex’s Hand, KaTaTaK actually appears to be the only non-concept release from the band, so in a way Hungarian Spa is back to business as normal – if you can call anything the band plays normal.
The album starts with this is sumthin’ you can never clean., which bursts into being, leaving the impression that the beginning has been skipped. Thrust straight into a bombastic mix of big band and weird vocal harmonies, this reminds me a little of the madness of Trojan Horse, but full-on jazz. It’s a short track which I wish carried on a little longer, as it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
The following track, on the other hand, is thoroughly strange. More a monologue than a song, this live performance is like a bad poetry and jazz recital – except it’s so bad it’s good. I enjoy this track far more than I feel I should, but I’m also sure this will be one a lot of people might choose to skip.
The next two tracks are two convoluted longer form exercises in prog jazz, chock full of atypical riffs and rhythmic patterns. At twelve and a half minutes, Broken Arms in the Threets is the longest song on the album, and one of three particular favourites of mine. It’s relatively normal for the first half before the band dials up the oddness. By the end, I’m even vaguely reminded of prog polka band ZZZZ.
I’m often reminded of another release from 2019 when listening to Hungarian Spa, and that’s the thoroughly marvellous Lost Crowns album. Lately Rina ramps up those comparisons with a Lydian delight. Another favourite from this album.
Another spoken word piece follows, but I love it. It reminds me of the spoken word pieces For Love Not Lisa used to do. Like the opening track, this is another I would have been happy if it had carried on a little longer. It ends too soon, and yet it’s comparatively one of the longest tracks of an eight track sequence of very short pieces. The longest in the sequence, Blisters on My Pee-Pee, is another song reminiscent of the absurdity of ZZZZ, but I’m a fan of that absurdity so I’m happily down with it.
Bobmarxley is a suitably dub affair, and a nice break of sorts, dialling down the insanity, and drifting away in a funk – before being thrown back into the deep end with Bublsbludundcum. Kockaroach ends the sequence of shorter tracks, before the final three longer songs, beginning with You’re a Little Freak. The vocals of Marietta Sarri on this track are a real treat, as is the string section. This sounds like nothing else on the album, and yet doesn’t come across as out of place. It’s probably the “prettiest” piece, even though there is still a lot of dissonance. The last of my three particular favourites.
Which is not to say I don’t have a lot of love for the two remaining tracks. Quite frankly, I love the freak out that is New Skin. Strangely, and this sounds crazy to say, but it is a little too conventional to begin with when taken into account with the rest of the album. That said, like many of the longer pieces, it’s a track of two halves. And just as with Broken Arms earlier in the album, while the first half is relatively “normal”, the second half is far more eclectically pleasing. It ends with a guttural cry. What more can I say?
The title track is last, so expectations are high. They are not let down either. After a quiet and almost contemplative start, the volume and intensity are raised. This is a grand closing number, paying tribute to all that came before, and bowing out with a flourish. And as the band has now bowed out themselves, this is a fine note to end on.
RIP Alex’s Hand. Your hard-driving, exploratory prog jazz excursions in over the top sax and guitar call and response will be missed. You were mad, and I’d not long known you, but I felt a connection.
01. this is sumthin’ you can never clean. (2:51)
02. Symbioastic Manuvr [Live at Zappanale #29] (4:10)
03. Fifty – 3 (7:19)
04. Broke Arms in the Threets (12:32)
05. Lately Rina (3:17)
06. Getting Through the Cracks (2:07)
07. Fat Cmdr. (0:53)
08. Palinka (1:51)
09. Blisters on My Pee-pee (2:43)
10. Bobmarxley (1:58)
11. Bublsbludundcum (1:52)
12. Sittin’ on the Couch (2:09)
13. Kockaroach (0:56)
14. You’re a Little Freak (6:20)
15. New Skin (8:30)
16. Hungarian Spa (5:01)
Total Time – 63:39
Kellen Mills – Bass, Upright, Synth, Vocals
Nic Barnes – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Erik Leuthäuser – Lead Vocals (tracks 1,3,4,5,8,9 & 12)
Ruben Bernges – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Banjo, Backing Vocals
Jacopo Bazzarri – Vibraphone
Matt Kennon – Tenor & Alto Sax, Backing Vocals
Giovanni Chirico – Baritone Sax
Dima Bondarev – Trumpet
Scott Flynn – Trombone
Danielle Friedman – Acoustic Piano
Roberto Vicchio – Trumpet (track 1), Italian (track 3)
Scott Thomas – Additional Alto Sax (track 4), Alto Sax Solo (track 16), Alto Sax (track 2)
Grgur Savic – Alto Sax (track 1)
Matt Paull – Keyboards (tracks 1 & 13), Backing Vocals (track 1)
Carl Andrew O’Sullivan – Backing Vocals (track 1)
Phil Tietjen – Spoken Word (track 7)
Brian Krock – Alto Sax, Clarinet (track 10)
Chato Segerer – Guitar Solo (track 15)
Omri Abramov – Tenor Sax Solo (track 4), Tenor Sax (track 2)
Marietta Sarri – Lead Vocals (track 14)
Chatschatur Kanajan – Violin (track 14)
Josephine Andronic – Violin (track 14)
Shasta Ellenbogen – Viola (track 14)
Liron Yariv – Cello (track 14)
Gabe Tachell – Vocals (track 15)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Germany
Date of Release: 15th October 2019