Submotion Orchestra, Finest Hour

Andrew Harrison

By Andrew Harrison

on 06.21.11 in Reviews

Leeds, the restive capital of the People’s Republic of West Yorkshire, has produced its far share of goth, indie rock, downbeat dance music and tubthumping pop. It’s nobody’s idea of a jazz mecca though, which is why Submotion Orchestra’s accomplished debut album comes as such a surprise. Shot through with avant-garde textures, refracted at unexpected dub and ambient angles, and at times even sinister, it’s a slick and accomplished collection of ersatz jazz and mellifluous trip-hop.

A slick and accomplished collection of ersatz jazz and mellifluous trip-hop

A few of the band’s nine members graduated from the Leeds College Of Music’s respected jazz course, while others have plied their trades as club DJs, composers-in-residence, sessioneers and promoters. One, Ruckspin, is perhaps the only classical viola player we’ve encountered who claims his favourite album is The Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation. The cumulative effect of all this extracurricular work is far from academic or studied, however, the impression is of a varied brain trust running on free-range musical curiosity.

The primary colors on Finest Hour are muted strings, Fender Rhodes pianos, skittering beats and the delicious lazy inflection in Ruby Wood’s voice, and it would be easy to make formulaic chill-out for phone ads from such ingredients. But the band is adept at turning their materials inside out to create moods that oscillate from the laid-back to the frenetic. “Secrets” develops from a swirling Jacuzzi of jazz horns into grand, bassy, Studio One-style reggae — Madness co-opted by Sun Ra. The record reaches a transcendent finale when “Perfection” unfurls into a grand, trumpet-led, intergalactic reverie and then disappears into a dub wormhole. The result is diverse and twisting enough to sit alongside vintage trip-hop like Thievery Corporation or Massive Attack without sounding like anything other than itself.