I first came across the core of this band when they were known as Metaphor, a rather quirky prog group with unusual songs, and their fourth album, The Pearl was very enjoyable. Just as I was getting interested, they split up, but only to reimagine themselves as an instrumental trio calling themselves Isobar, comprising Jim Anderson on bass, Malcolm Smith on guitar and Marc Spooner on keyboards. Except they aren’t really a trio, as they are never without their drummer Mattias Olsson, who appears to be on loan from Änglagård.
Isobar’s latest release, Isobar III (yes, it’s rather predictably their third album), is an excellent collection of ideas. If the album title suggests a lack of imagination, I can assure you that there is no such problem with the music, or for that matter, the song titles. The twists and turns in each song here hold the attention, and more than compensate for any lack of vocals. In fact it’s hard to see how words would fit into the busy and complex arrangements on display. They move from Seventies-influenced prog to jazz fusion and back again with ease, often several times in each composition. Vocals would be a distraction, as there is more than enough going on already.
Opening piece, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, is typical, ushered in by a nice piano motif and Mellotron, drums and bass picking up a relaxed rhythm before Malcolm Smith’s Fripp-ish angular guitar changes the mood completely. This track does have a bit of a Crimson vibe, whilst ploughing its own furrow, the disjointed melody meandering in unpredictable directions. An ambient segment calms things before a complex series of chords return us to Crimson waters. There is some lovely violin embellishment from Joanne Wu, adding further textural interest, then taking over the melody which it seems has become far more memorable. Seven minutes have flashed past in what seems like an instant, and to some extent, that is the story of this album. There is so much going on in each track, nothing stays the same for long, yet there is cohesion holding it all together.
Parts of Harvey is a more whimsical piece, with lyrical guitar and keys painting a pastoral picture, perhaps with a Canterbury influence, but with a definite jazz edge. Brand X at their less frenetic is another touchstone, with some tasteful electric piano from Marc Spooner, but all underpinned by Matthias Olsson’s crisp drums and Jim Anderson’s exploratory bass lines. The song floats away in a shimmering haze, a mood picked up again in next song Face in the Blue, which is another jazzy excursion which develops into more intricate territory. The guitar becomes fidgety and unsettled contrasting with more atmospheric keys, a fascinating combination.
Shadow Green, by contrast, sounds much proggier with lovely Anthony Phillips style guitar, playful dancing synth and an elegiac electric guitar theme. Yes, Isobar are having a Genesis moment for a few minutes, and it sounds wonderful. The closing minute-and-a-half of this piece goes full-on prog, with heavy Mellotron and guitar. The mood soon changes totally, as the next three pieces introduce guest trumpet (Evan Weiss) and sax (Ben Bohorquez), and we are transported to some experimental section of the album where jazz meets a funk edge, augmented by some tricky Zappa-isms. It recalls some of the elements which made Zappa’s ’74 band so entertaining, especially on The Trouble with Buttons. There is some improvisation, but it’s all kept tight and to the point.
The final couple of pieces return to the core players, plus the return of Joanne Wu. The Mimus Polyglottos Alarm Clock (?!) is the longest track here, and allows the band to stretch out a bit, but as before there is no room for aimless noodling, and every minute is made to count. The imagination and invention packed into these grooves is startling and thoroughly enjoyable. The song goes through many distinct sections, but all linked and logical. There is a thematic flow which just works; it’s a journey through soundscapes in Isobar’s own universe, and it’s strangely beautiful. Full Nelson brings things to a close, and it’s a more concise and accessible track, whilst in no way ‘normal’. Isobar make musical statements which require some listener attention and effort, but they stop short of being ‘whacky’, so a mildly inquisitive listener should not be put off. Having lived with this release for a few weeks now, I’m completely converted to their world, and I would certainly recommend lending an ear to some of the delights on Isobar III.
01. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? (7:44)
02. Parts of Harvey (7:29)
03. Face in the Blue (5:02)
04. Shadow Green (6:28)
05. The Trouble with Buttons (5:32)
06. 4th Leg (6:38)
07. Objet (3:42)
08. The Mimus Polyglottos Alarm Clock (10:12)
09. Full Nelson (5:02)
Total Time – 57:49
Jim Anderson – Bass
Malcolm Smith – Guitars
Marc Spooner – Keyboards
Mattias Olsson – Drums
Evan Weiss – Trumpet (tracks 5,6 & 7)
Ben Bohorquez – Saxophone (tracks 5,6 & 7)
Joanne Wu – Violin (Tracks 1 & 8)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 20th January 2023
Isobar – Bandcamp