The search for new music has never led to a more wide, deep, and vastly colorful array of sounds than now. Boundaries relating to genre and tradition are constantly being challenged, experimented with, and questioned. Elements that never previously seemed fit for cohabitation in a composition are now embraced. Where this sometimes leaves listeners, is in a state of temporary confusion. Music like that of the new EP Phases, by Bristol, UK band, Hexcut, is prominent example of this scenario. However, despite any initial uncertainty, what these three gentlemen are offering is nothing if not a horizon-expanding experience, as opposed to a negative one.
A trio that’s been putting in the unspoken requisite of pavement pounding commitment and new band creative enthusiasm since the summer of 2017, with Phases, Hexcut has elegantly draped itself in sonic stylings resonating with modern jazz, electronica, and trip-hop.
Torsten Jensen (Piano)
Richard Entwistle (Drums)
Sean Clarke (Bass)
A somewhat succinct EP of only four tracks that culminates in just under 20 minutes of run time, despite its limited quantity, Phases does well to take listeners across a diversely textured musical landscape. The trio’s own initial association with the likes of GoGo Penguin and DJ Shadow feel definitively apt and particularly in the case of the former, more similarities than not are abound. Instrumental composition and the title track’s rhythmic, technical musicianship-driven foundation certainly emulate GoGo Penguin’s flavor of songwriting. Still, for one thing, the ability to raise oneself to the level of that type of instrumental dexterity is not a choice made on a whim and so should be praised and celebrated what Jensen, Entwistle, and Clarke accomplish, rather than laying down and putting an easy hook on loop.
Past the immediately noticeable connections, Hexcut do deviate significantly from their UK peers – most prominently, through the band’s inclusion of synthesizer and opting for bass guitar over an acoustic upright. Interestingly though, with this relatively minor added pair of sonic elements being written to present such tight and structured rhythms, Hexcut take on a gleaming crispness and sense of audible refreshment that gives off a quality similar to that of minimalist-but-memorable synth master, Tycho. The EP’s title track is a great example of the reminiscent artist styles mixed together but made into a piece that is all Hexcut’s own for the way the trio never fully settles into the groove of any quality that makes up their stylistic identity. The way the music progresses, flows, and transitions so smoothly and naturally between the defined structure of fast tempo piano motifs and more loose and improvisatory sounds of the synthesizer or Clarke’s wide-toned bass, gives Phases a feel that seamlessly fuses meticulously kaleidoscopic and tye-dye abstract qualities in its unfurling presentation.
Past the surface presentation of what can be heard in Phases four tracks is a second layer worth appreciation: The physical pull of the music itself. Yes, the tones and speeds of the instrumental notes can influence she associated descriptions of how the music comes across but there’s also the literal pulse of the music, like in the case of longest single track, “Ropay.” Nearly seven minutes, this song establishes a more rock-dominant aesthetic with the bass opening the piece with a notably syncopated rhythm setting the initial flow in the most interesting of ways. Written in an inarguable 4/4 time signature, though the downbeats should be easy and obvious to hit, listen to the motif long enough after the light Rhodes keys drop in and the punctuating snare drum emboldens the phrasing and suddenly an overwhelming inclination to hear the music in 7/4 starts to emerge. Though “Ropay” doesn’t jerk the listener around with the meter (save for one measure later on that does do a genuine 7/4 break), to create the illusion of 7/4 and to pull it off some subtly by way of the bass which eventually provides a “ghost note” that feels like the downbeat after a seventh beat, is impressive and extremely clever.
As the EP goes on, Hexcut tinker with the faders of personal decision that turn each track into one dominated by piano, rhythmic drum and bass, or colorful synthesizer. “Jamapel” pulls the music back to the lighter side of things, with Jensen taking front and center at the piano. It’s here that listeners get a flash of Hexcut’s agility and sonic poise. Everything from bright and jazzy major 7th chords, to maneuvering about the mid to upper registers of the piano with an eventual textural change in the form of sprightly rim hits, dry snare tone, and delicate cymbal rolls, that make sure to maintain the track’s milder touch. The moderate reverb on the piano does add an stylistically understandable gleam to the band’s overall tone but in totality that same tone also makes it difficult not to think of a song with similar tone choices like Marc Cohn’s iconic “Walking in Memphis.” The crispness is appreciable but the notes perhaps need a bit more body, not just straight sustain, to get that micron of individualizing sound separation.
When the EP winds down with electronica producer, Darken, taking the title track for a spin, what Hexcut are left with is a smartly mapped out metamorphosis of what was already a strong piece, into something that retains recognition while being redirected and reshaped in a way that changes where and how one might see the track fitting into an environment. The original is instrumentally multi-layered and colored by the defined, thin, laser style synths but for the most part, the song feels dense in a balanced way. Lots to take in but presented in an organized fashion. Darken maintain the frame of “Phases” but thins out the arrangement rank a bit through channels like dynamics and sound staging. Where the synths jump at the ear right from the start, thought still present, Darken turns them down to allow for some more softy-edged droplet style tones that create a sense of, indeed, darkened eerieness the original avoids. Beyond that, as the track progresses, the equally spread out density of all the parts interacting and actively playing is given breathing room with more gain adjustments and the spotlight is then granted to Darken’s nimble but rhythmically synchronous drum and bass riffs. The song is made to feel at times faster and more emotionally urgent with the short bursts of genre signature snare rolls and cymbal bell tones, but the overall momentum stays intact. In an A to B direct comparison, the piano at the second half of the track does become a substantially secondary player in Darken’s transformation but his coordinated sprinkling of melodic synth tones spread among the anxious percussion and the uptempo cynical piano motif moved to the middle keep the track from losing its tone driven core while also playing to Darken’s obvious style strengths. It’s a shrewdly assembled remix that is undoubtedly signature to Darken without turning into diluted takeover. He obviously has a firm grasp on the concept of balanced collaborative change.
All in all, Hexcut deliver a project that is like an easy and effortless introduction – the kind of new meeting where all parties involved hit it off immediately and feel like they’ve known each other a long time and-or wonder how they didn’t meet before then. This route can be a risky one to walk when a band is still accruing momentum and recognition but Hexcut have clearly thought every step through and the result let’s the music attract new ears easily without getting lost in the footsteps of those who came before them.