One of the standout releases of 2016 was the debut, and to date the only release from London based quartet Flux. ShadowLines was an enthralling and utterly delightful collection of tracks imbuing Western and Indian cultures and textures, resulting in a truly uplifting and captivating album. A strange introduction to a new album from Quest Ensemble you might think. Well I mention Flux here as that quartet included classically trained violinist Preetha Narayanan, who coincidentally makes up one third of Quest Ensemble, a project which, in a similar fashion to Flux, looks to combine contemporary classical, World, folk and jazz Western and Indian musics.
Whereas Flux’s ShadowLines, for the main part, was joyous, upbeat and took the listener on a charming journey, Quest Ensemble’s The Other Side takes a more extemporised, often darker and introspective path. No more evident than in the album’s opening piece, Space Between. From the initial droning strings, the track unfolds in a laboured, ruminative fashion, as the numerous textured layers make their measured entrances. The trio create a wonderfully bleak and immersive panorama, and one that slowly envelopes the listener, with subtle sound manipulations, effects and cavernous reverbs.
What is equally adroit is the way the intoxicating strings of Moment take the listener in another direction, without losing the pensive aura created during Space Between. The heady pace of the strings is augmented by the piano and countered by the flowing and evocative cello of Tara Franks. A truly stunning and inspired piece of music and a formidable introduction to this contemporary chamber music trio.
The formation of Quest Ensemble dates back some ten years and follows their initial meeting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2008. Since then the musicians have written and composed together, releasing their first album, Footfall, in 2014. Although classically trained, collectively Quest Ensemble choose to compose in a more contemporary fashion, their music borne from spontaneity and improvisation, rather than following the dots, so to speak. That’s not to suggest there is a lack of structure to the music, but more a reflection of the freedom expressed within the pieces – an approach which is abundantly evident across the ten tracks on The Other Side.
So as we move on chronologically across the album we have Pendulum which swings (sorry!) brightly and breezily, with the strings intertwining the wonderfully ornate piano lines. Drops, on the other hand, is wonderfully twisting, highly entropic and ever evolving…
As we hit the mid-point of the album we are introduced to the title track, with its tantalisingly discordant vocalisation, tormenting with those intervals that perhaps do not rest easily upon the ear. However, if The Other Side proves to be a little taxing, all will be forgiven with the arrival of The Boatman. Propelled by the left-hand of Filipe Sousa’s piano and caressed by sweeping stringed arpeggios, the first part of this cyclical track is then showered in sweetly intoned wordless voices. At the mid-point the cyclical backdrop becomes more subdued, allowing initially, the cello a melancholic dialogue, followed by a brief discourse with the violin. All concludes with those angelic vocals. Breathtaking!
Crucial to any album, of course, is tracking, or more precisely, ordering the tracks in such a fashion that there is a recognisable and empathetic flow across the release. Something Quest Ensemble have obviously considered and although each of the tracks have their own distinct variations, you always sense there is a set narrative.
So as Preetha’s divine violin melody rises succinctly from the previous track, we are ready for the new chapter, Land of None. All too brief, however, as her soothing violin passage gradually subsides, echoes of The Boatman resonate. In the second part of Land of None we are treated to a magnificent ensemble performance, bustling with excitement and vigour.
One of the descriptors for the music of Quest Ensemble is jazz. The fact that the band compose in an improv fashion would qualify that term, however the listener will detect little of the free-form expressionism commonly associated with the genre. Pizz Strings, however, is a prime example of how QE bring in those jazz elements and combine them with other forms, resulting in a rather intoxicating melange. Equally attributable to the closing tune Pedal Down. Sousa’s expressive piano underpins, folk meets classical… at the jazz club.
And that concludes the album. Ahem, that’s only 9 tracks… well that’s jazz for you, never straightforward!
The Other Side is scheduled (post apocalypse) for a limited vinyl release, however due to time constraints of the format, The Whip will not appear on LP. As the final track, The Whip was part of QE’s ‘vision’ for The Other Side, it is available on the CD and digital platforms. If I’m not mistaken, when you buy the LP through Bandcamp you get the download as part of the package.
The Other Side was due to have its live premiere launch in June of this year at London’s King’s Place Hall, sadly thwarted by the recent global pandemic. Hopefully Quest Ensemble will be able to rescheduled the event at some point (and perhaps film it?).
A thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable album.
01. Space Between (3:22)
02. Moment (3:40)
03. Pendulum (3:54)
04. Drops (5:48)
05. The Other Side (3:20)
06. The Boatman (5:31)
07. Land Of None (4:24)
08. Pizz Trance (5:01)
09. Pedal Down (4:43)
10. The Whip (3:09)
Total Time – 42:52
Preetha Narayanan – Violin
Tara Franks – Cello
Filipe Sousa – Piano
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 19th June 2020