Athletic Progression - cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air (Touching Bass, 2021)
The Arhus based trio continue to elevate and spread out their deeply absorbing sound with an outstanding album that sets the benchmark for Jazzy and Electronic fulled grooves for years to come.
Music as a whole has always been about evolution, the morphologies of varying strains of DNA and the convergences of differing styles all swimming together in the deepest of pots, and in the contemporary era this feeling is absolutely no different. If not more so than ever, new things come from those who feel at one with their parameters, with the soundscapes that are conjured up always containing that little bit of extra space for growth and continual absorption and dispersal of new elements, and from this narrative we feel duty bound to see how these narratives will play out. Jazz has always remained an integral element in the continued exploration of sound for countless bands and producers, with its influence on how genres have evolved throughout the 20th century and beyond quite simply unquantifiable, its boundless possibility combining effortlessly with the aspirations of musically minded people and with that the birthing of so many slices of genius. As a intermediate between so many other genres, the role of Jazz is like a binding agent, its fluidity and diverse style acting like the glue that holds together all the wondrous ideas a group or individual could pull together, and thus its feel can be felt across the spectrum and through time itself. This statement is very much alive and kicking in the present day, with Jazz continuing to surface in so many forms and places still, as a whole new generation look to combine its iconic sensibilities with grooves inspired from other realms, such as the introduction of the swings of Hip Hop and the 4 to the flour grooves of House, along with the endless possibilities of synths and drum machines. This infusing of styles has seen all kinds of musical expressionism continue to surface, with each stream of releases from artists capturing some kind of essence of Jazz, be it going for more fusion led compositions or pushing the boat out into more electronic leaning spaces, we are blessed with a plethora of talents who do their bit in continuing to make the genre feel fresh and exciting. There are those within this field however who really do stand tall, who's narrative presents itself with a continued renewal of meaning and purpose, with the beats and melodics pushing the bar higher and higher with ingenuity and creativity. Today's musical landscape oversees evolutions in less of a giant leap forward as it did before but more so in the smaller steps, but these in turn feel like enormous ripples, a gentle energy that sounds warm to the ears and even warmer to the soul, with these records remaining long in the memory after the needle has stopped. We feel blessed to be play a small role in it all, a role that grows as the music expands and evolves from track to track, becoming locked into a journey that shows no signs of slowing down or standing still, merely continuing to grow and expand from point A to point B, never fearing in its pursuit of all that is good and pure. Its this kind of music that continues to maintain its freshness, its vibrancy and its heart, a representation of Jazz that feels incredibly sweet to the ears and wholesome deep within the soul, a kind of warmth that only comes to us when the drumming remains incisive and the feels on top pull us in all kinds of directions. when an album is more than happy to keep pulling you in along these sorts of paths, then you are onto a true winner, in every sense of the word.
In more ways than one, the Danish-Tanzanian band Athletic Progression have been achieving these kinds of representations, via a sound that remains indefinitely deep and ever shifting in relation to scope and identity. The group, made up of musicians Jonas Cook, Justo Gambula and Jonathan Jull Ludvigsen, have looked to the realms of progressive Jazz fusion and groove as the key cornerstone of their audial vision, and despite only being around for a small number of years have already achieved so much during that time. Their sound is one rooted in the feels of Jazz but with plenty of hands planted in other spaces and frequencies, such as Hip Hop, Funk and electronic genres like House, with everything coming together so impeccably and intuitively, as if around every corner remains something truly extraordinary. Their records read like constricting and expanding soundscapes, where short rhythmic bursts are interwoven alongside longer compositions, with the listener guided by the hand in order to look at everything that is on offer, and that offering always provides sustenance for the soul and beauty for the mind to feast upon. The sound that the trio conjure up remains indefinitely engaging, the style ever shifting as layers upon layers of sublimity float our way amongst a sea of beautifully precise drumming patterns, with the melodics on top doing much to set the tone and help to create either expanse or intimacy. That's the kind of feeling which sticks with the listener, one where you embrace the energies that flow your way and latch onto them, only to be whisked away in another direction as the vibrations continue to resonate with all that it comes into contact with. This is where the magic happens, when three like minded individuals come together to share passions but also ambitions, and the music that they create is so very ambitious, its contents gorgeous to the touch and deeply engaging to the ears. There's a satisfaction in their music which stems not only from the wondrous emotional detail but also the skill and craftsmanship of it all, as we appreciate the coming together of rhythmical genius and emotionally driven expanses. Surprising, tantalising, moving and broad, there's so much to explore in every single cut that they present to us, a space where vision and grace meet up in the most glorious of ways, an series of audial frequencies that feeds the soul with all the best nutrition you could ever hope for. The trio have released two albums previous to their latest effort, with the first of these being 2019's 'Dark Smoke', which saw the core trio joined by vocalists Minna Forouzandeh, Isatta Sheriff and Blacc EI, and this record would certainly set the stage for things to come. The band introduced their impeccable blend of Jazz and Hip Hop across a series of cuts that really exemplified their abilities to perform, twist and turn, with the three vocalists all delivering their lines superbly as a highly engaging narrative up top. As debuts go, you couldn't ask for a better stage setter, and as 2020 arrived, the group would turn their attentions to their second effort, the result being the 'Athletic Progression' LP, which looked to focusing primarily on grooves, and the sound is something to treasure. Moving from short bursts of brilliance and through into mesmerising drawn out scapes, its a record that's concise with its musicianship but big on squeezing every single drop of possibility from every space, as the listener is placed somewhere in the middle of it all, marvelling at everything that floats our way. Its a supremely beautiful effort, and one which will persist as one of 2020's finest records, with its contents in many ways doing much to further the narrative of Jazz laden beats. Both of the Athletic Progression records live long in the memory, and remain two of the most complete celebrations of the new ages Jazz sound, with the heads behind it all showcasing just how to apply dexterity alongside a deeply engaging creative vision. If you haven't checked out their earlier works, then be sure to go back and have a wee listen, trust us when we say you won't be disappointed.
And now we arrive at the subject of today's review, 'cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air', which arrives via the always impressive Touching Bass imprint. Based upon the expansiveness that occurred continuously on their previous efforts, you just knew that the trio would continue those feels on anything that would come our way next, and we are not disappointed as we are treated to some of the most dynamic and mesmerising grooves you are likely to hear all year, along with some beautiful melodic work that rides the crest up top with a feverish intensity. Scale, depth and meaning permeate through on every single cut, be it within a more Hip Hop leaning space or an expressive Jazz fuelled groover, each track offers off a differing side to the personality of Athletic Progression, with the music speaking so softly to us through its dense structure. Never standing still, merely evolving and morphing as time passes by, its a treasure trove of feeling and emotion, and on that note, lets dive right into this wonderful piece of music...
'Bella Sky' arrives first, and this one only lasts for 7 seconds, but its contents speak for themselves, a wavering key line that hangs in the air, its tone and form setting the stage very nicely indeed for the flow into 'JUNGELEN', which begins as the delightful drumming pattern gets underway. The keys arrive soon after, their form and tone like a flute as it cascades down onto us from up high, its touch so beautiful and its progression so moving, and as we move through the gears we arrive at the climax, which sees all the elements involved go into overdrive in providing a sense of depth and scale, and it just works so well. The track then flows back into the verse second, which sees the bass and keys to a beautiful sequential movement together, with little flurries and interchanges involving themselves all over the ground plain, with the drums in particular showcasing themselves superbly. The track has time for one final climax, which sees the drums move underneath the framework with a feverish intensity, as the keys do one final number on the senses. Incredible stuff. Up next comes 'safran.baby', and this one starts off with the swinging drumming patterns and bass line to get us going. The bass weaves its way impeccably within the drumming structure, as the key line arrives soon after to compliment the existing elements, its rising feel crafting a real sense of dynamism that helps to bind the listener deeper into its outlay. The keys then retreat to leave a outer space kind of key line that moves around in the space above the drums, before this then moves away to leave just the groove by itself, and before you know it the keys return in all their cosmic goodness, their tone and flickering presence hitting you in all the right spots. The textures on display here are wonderful, with the chordal tones acting so well alongside the rising key lines, with the bass and drums leading the way into the ending. Glorious stuff. 'mortal kombat' comes next, and this one acts a very pretty bookend to the opening act of the record, with the keys coming hard and fast amongst a sea of swinging drum loops, capturing the imagination for the shortest amount of time but still packing a big old punch. We then swiftly move into 'OSAKA', and this one starts off with the chords to get us going. The drums arrive soon after, and this groove is one of the year's finest, with its multi-dimensional feel keeping the momentum going on strong, with the keys gracefully abounding on top like it has all the emotion of the world resting on its shoulders. The way in which the track expands and contracts is masterfully done, with the wavelengths densifying with the bass coming through the middle with a particularly strong sequence indeed, as the track swings from here to there with a fabulous sense of direction. The transitions between the rhodes stabs and the deep mystifying choral sections is beautifully pulled off, with so much found here to keep you listening for days on end. Everything on this is absolutely top notch, nothing short of remarkable.
'Officer Jimmy I' brings some narrative into the mix, seemingly documenting a conversation that helps to bookend all we heard before and release us into the next stage of the record, which arrives in the form of 'ndion farr'. This one starts off with the rolling piano line cascading up far and wide above a deeply intriguing drumming pattern, with the two elements moving along with a fluidity that feels so right to the ears, its looping presence warming us all over. The piano then peters out to provide a sonic contrast to the fullness of before, with the drums finding all the time in the world to express themselves, with the drums lingering long in the memory. Mesmerising stuff. 'Officer Jimmy II' follows up here, again providing some narrative to proceedings, with its contents leading into the next track 'DEBRA' very well indeed. On the first long play of the record, things kick off with the deepest of expanses, with the drums sliding down way into the foundations of the soul as the keys do much to lift the hearts and minds of all those standing around, with the intro salvo then making way for the ground plain frequency to come into view. The scale gets reduced to a very concise feel, the drums lightly moving along as the keys flourish up top, their grace and feel moving us in so many ways as the little flourishes groove around underneath with a wonderful feel. The track then lifts itself up with the drums applying themselves a bit harder than before, with plenty of fills to add fuel to the engine, with the keys also doing their bit to move things forward, and as the track cuts out to bring a vocal sample into view, we transition into the next stage of the design, and its pretty fucking amazing. The drums do this beautiful double time line that compliments the ever expanding feel of the bass and the keys, with all three lines of inquiry moving along beautifully together. The next part sees the drums take lead whilst the keys move in and out of view, with this arrangement continuing onwards beyond into the stars, its feel and tone never leaving us. Very special. Up next comes 'Cooked Ones Pt II', and this starts off in a slowed down space. The hats and cymbals do much to set the tone, their feel softly speaking to us as the keys gently blow in the breeze, with the informality moving into the formal as the keys start to rest on a solid form. The kicks help to set a sense of pulse, with this rhythmic sequence providing a beautiful basis for the keys to do their thing, and do their thing they do, with wonderful expressions coming our way thick and fast, a soothing embrace that keeps giving over so much. The additional synth line, that arrives in the form of stabs initially, swells in the backdrop before filling up all the conceivable space that persists within the structure, and its this swell that keeps the mind ticking over, its encapsulating feel so hard to deny. Wonderful stuff.
'#15 Carmelo' comes next, and this one acts as another wonderful bookend, with swirling piano moving across the plains with meaning and presence, as the stage is set for 'MOUSSAS FINEST' to move into view. The drums craft a big old space between the snares and the shakers, with the keys moving from the solid lead chordal arrangement and the smattering of singular notes, with all the features helping to craft a very compelling groove indeed, as we move from the initial arrangement and into the second stage with a masterful transition. The track doubles up with the drums arriving at their final form, with the keys rising higher and higher as time passes by, their energy giving over some wonderful feels to us, and before long we arrive into a fusion breakdown that sees piano lines explode over the drums, with these gorgeous little breaks occurring to help breakdown the flow beautifully. The track then transitions into its final form, with the light drumming pattern and delightful keys doing much to move us in all sorts of ways. '#301 Call' comes next, and this one sees the keys that we heard at the start of the record come into view before a voicemail comes through the airwaves, with this setting the stage for the next cut 'Extended Techniques' to come into view, with this one featuring the vocal work of Poet/Rapper Brother Portrait. The track doesn't mess around with getting straight into it, with the singular chord leading the way into the drums and bass, and all the feels in the world are provided on this one. The singular note that rings out amongst the sea of expressionism does wonders to the mind, weaving us from here to there and back again as the drums do their utmost to lull us into a rhythmic trance. The track then slows down significantly to provide space for the keys to make more of an appearance, along with Portrait's vocal line, which is delivered with a pitch perfect flow that weaves around the heart and the soul, a beautiful embrace that provides that narrative connection to the listener. Its a wonderful meander, and one that draws you in so very close, our space confined to the moments between the vocals and the instrumentals, and it works perfectly. 'Justo's Waltz' arrives next, and this one remains the final short yet impeccably sweet embrace for us to enjoy. The piano gracefully moves and grooves through the lines, going out of its way to move through the lines and arrive at a place where tranquility and groove persist in perfect harmony. To wrap things up, we have 'THE EXAM', and this one begins with the explosive drums and keys to get us going. The movement between differing dynamics, balances and spatial arrangements is pulled off to a T, and this track just encapsulates everything that this trio tries to do. There's the ingenuity to look beyond, to understand where differing elements and features can crop up, and how emotions can be intermingled with rhythm. This record stands tall, very very tall.
Jazz will always remain as one of the key boundary pushers, and in this day and age more and more musicians are infusing their sound with the core tennents of the genre and all that it has to offer. Many voices have sprung up within this field of musical expressionism, with Athletic Progression one of those voices that have sung the loudest, and there are many reasons for that claim, with this record being one of them. From the off we feel involved, we feel beloved, we feel connected to the music, with the bombastic drumming patterns lighting a fire in our hearts whilst the keys and bass lines doing much to target the emotions contained within us, with the resulting essence one of pure bliss and rhythm. Not only do the trio achieve this from a technical and tonal point of view, but the styles which flow from this record just make the experience even more intriguing, as each cut feels like a standalone yet feeds into the overarching structures that be. You'll find yourself swimming within this sea of possibility, and there is so much here to marvel at, with repeat listenings a given. One of the albums of the year.
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