The Science Group


Released in 1999, the first album by the composite line-up called The Science Group titled ...A Mere Coincidence.. seemed in many ways to want to follow in the interrupted path that had been travelled by News From Babel in its combining music and lyrics, even if the result were quite different (and not as memorable). Again, the lyrics were by Chris Cutler (also on drums), while the music and keyboards were by Novi Sad musician/composer Stevan Kovaks Tickmayer, a former pupil of Louis Andriessen and leader of the Tickmayer Formatio. Just as important was the contribution by former Thinking Plague Bob Drake, whose studio work was essential to enrich the compositions with timbres and montages. Amy Denio on vocals, guitars by Fred Frith, clarinets by Claudio Puntin. The album didn't get a lot of attention (there could be many reasons for this), but among the few comments I read there was one that filed the work under "progressive" (in a favourable way).

So I'd like to know that writer's opinion about Spoors, the new work released under the Science Group name. Different coordinates: the previous album featured songs, while here we only have instrumental compositions, some in the form of suites. Still featured are Cutler, Drake and Tickmayer, the quartet is rounded by US guitarist Mike Johnson, a member of Thinking Plague. Spoors is in many ways a work that really can be filed under "progressive", even if it could be (rightly) argued that: Tickmayer's references are wider and more complex than the prog norm, that his compositional logic (quite postmodernist, I'd say) is obviously very different, that the instrumental skills (not to mention the studio work) are enormously superior to any prog group past and present, and so on.

All this reasoning won't change one iota in the reaction of the listeners, who it's not at all difficult to imagine being enthusiastic or disgusted according to their perception of this compositional idiom, today. I doubt most will bother listening past track 3, Timeline 5, particularly after the episode with that organ and a guitar solo that sounds a lot like Phil Miller did thirty years ago. (I hate shooting, but it's quite difficult to imagine another guitar player using a vocabulary and sounds as trite and absolutely incapable of producing any emotional response as those used by Mike Johnson on all this record.) And even if Chris Cutler's drums sometimes appear to succeed in making us think of late-period Henry Cow (think: Western Culture), the most pertinent reference is really late-period Univers Zero - who overdubbed their parts while reading from a score. (And what's "progressive" without any fire?)

From a compositional point there are a lot of good parts (Dispersants, 2 Bagatelles, many parts of Old And New Paths), but Kovacs's predilection for atmospheres that jump from one style to another is not welcome to me, and in the end his work resembles more a work by a University professor that's written to be performed in front of a group of peers than to (what for me is) a rock album.

(A press release that writes "What is really novel about The Science Group is that this is rock music composed and performed with the rigour of contemporary classical music" shoots itself in the foot.)

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Jan. 18, 2004