“An impressive statement! A true breathtaking monster!” – Dolf Mulder, VITAL WEEKLY
“There are enough ideas in the first couple of numbers to fill a whole album, with wailing sax and clarinet and lightning propelled guitar in the brief opener ‘Heat Patch’- think Zappa- then Fripp in ‘The Celebration Restriction’. It’s a whirlwind, visceral listen with the free spirit of experimental jazz and the nous of heavy rock.” – Phil Jackson, ACID DRAGON
Conceived and realised over an 8-month period of intense solitary work, “GATED” is Alex Ward’s most ambitious musical statement to date. The ten pieces employ all of Alex’s instrumental resources as a performer, featuring clarinets, saxophones, guitars, keyboards, electric bass and assorted software instruments; and furthermore they draw on everything he has learned during his three-decades-plus of activity as a free improviser, composer/bandleader and sideman. The result is a dense and multi-layered array of detailed compositional structures, headlong improvisational flights and deft studio manipulation.
As the conception of the album progressed and Alex resolved to let his ideas develop in a manner unfettered by anything other than his own aspirations and abilities, he strove to create a work which would inhabit a wide-open stylistic and sonic terrain without succumbing to the pitfalls of pastiche. The range of instrumentation and attack deployed throughout the album might at various points suggest any number of strands of avant/experimental rock, AACM-and-beyond traditions of creative music, or post-Darmstadtian chamber rigour; but rather than generic signifiers being employed as decoration or even tribute, in “GATED” every musical element is mined for the most fertile and least standardised possibilities it can yield. Despite the album’s startling diversity of sound and atmosphere, a consistent set of compositional and aesthetic principles underlies its entire contents.
This album is dedicated to Simon H. Fell (1959-2020).
All compositions by Alex Ward (PRS).All instruments performed and/or programmed by Alex Ward.Produced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Alex Ward at Stowaway Studios, July 2020 – March 2021.
Like a Hitchcock soundtrack for the 21st century – Neil Nixon, STRANGE FRUIT
This ambitious, richly rewarding multi-instrumental album invites many questions about its construction. Conceived and developed over eight months’ solitary work, its ten compositions feature Alex Ward on clarinets, saxophones, guitars, keyboards, electric bass and software instruments. Ward, born in 1974, became involved in free improv from the amazingly precocious age of twelve, when he met Derek Bailey. Since 2000 he’s worked on guitar as well as clarinet, often with drummer Steve Noble; in recent years he’s focused on composition, mainly of instrumental music. The structure of Gated is dense and many-layered, crossing genres including avant rock, post-Darmstadt modernism, AACM-influenced postbop and free improv. Compositions are completely notated; notated with improvised sections for one or more instruments alongside notated material; or involve a back-and-forth between notation, improvising and studio manipulation. These three types aren’t easily distinguishable for the listener, however. Some instruments are played live by Ward; others were treated in the studio to sound like a different instrument. Finally, some “instruments” are software samples either programmed directly, or improvised on live by Ward on midi keyboard and then edited. Ward gave that quite lengthy description by email, and the album is a challenging listen. But the rambunctious energy on his many instruments, and zany arrangements, has an immediate appeal – though it takes time for the apparently overloaded structures to become clearer. Some tracks are quite brief and end abruptly, but the album weighs in at seventy-four minutes and believe me, there’s a lot of music. The opening “Heat Patch” which features hypodermic clarinet and guitar against an absurdly mobile instrumental backdrop; “The Celebrated Restriction” is a rhythmically out-of-kilter pile-up with feedback-drenched guitar. The brooding, meandering “Let” featuring clarinet and alto saxophone gives the listener the chance to catch their breath. The long, fractured “Hewn” evolves into something reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, with stuttering effects like a stuck CD – so realistic that, as I was listening on CD, I got up to check. One episode features a tsunami of feedback. “The Bradford Factor” is free improv, dominated by electric keyboards. Everything goes by very fast, so now I need to listen again. – Andy Hamilton, THE WIRE
On his Discus debut, clarinetist, saxophonist, and guitarist Ward proves he’s nothing less than a one-man wrecking crew. Performing and/or programming all the instruments on Gated himself, Ward shows that restraint ain’t his bag on this long-player; he’s too concerned to literally shake the foundations. Previous outings on a whole slew of labels—Confront, Intakt, Incus, Treader, Emanem, FMR, et al—and with a laundry-list of simpatico enfants terribles like Lol Coxhill, Mark Sanders, Evan Parker, John Coxon, and Simon H. Fell (to whom this album is dedicated) haven’t exactly revealed his softer side, but the rampaging momentum of this disc finds Ward letting his hair down. The two-minute opening “Heat Patch” lights the fuse impossible-mission style, horns charging amidst a fusillade of galloping drums and a bassline that sounds like someone stuffing socks into the studio amplifiers. On the following “The Celebrated Restriction”, Ward makes it clear he’s keen to embracing Yngwie Malmsteen as much as Mahavishnu Orchestra; this over-the-top war machine, outfitted with overdriven guitar distortion and wicked, pealing drums, kicks ass, tensile thrash metal for tense eras, surely not for the squeamish. Across the mortar-blasted landscape that is the eighteen-minute “Hewn”, Ward plays his instruments as if he’s a malfunctioning automaton seeking out new energy sources; spiky, near atonal guitar skronks whip their percussive counterparts into a frenzy, cherry-picking their way through reams of steamroller bass that flatten any structures left standing, an exhaustive display of virtuosity and verve whose every note feels wholly earned. Two other lengthy pieces emphasize Ward’s no slouch in related modes of expressive differential: “Cushioned” is a sun-dappled orchestration of clarinet-cred that tussles within hurricane-force fripperies, while “Maybe It’ll Break the Heat” airbursts through the speakers in a tumultuous fallout of jagged, razor-sharp guitar shrapnel, the cascading pieces literally eruptive Magma stained the color of Crimson. Boffo. – Darren Bergstein, DMG NYC
Another sonic adventure from Discus finds Alex Ward‘s abilities on the various instruments used here being stretched to their limits. He plays everything here, and that covers guitar, bass, drums, woodwind, keyboards and various dizzying noisemakers. Not only is it an instrumental tour de force, but the musical styles that the album encompasses are varied in the extreme, bursting through: free jazz, metal, math rock and ambient drone, often with them all in one piece. Gated is a fairly breathless listen with little opportunity for respite, and I find myself trying to picture the process of Alex recording the pieces section by section, playing over himself, over and over, pushing ever further as the tempo increases and the solos spiral out of control, speakers rattling. Spread across ten tracks, the shortest of which is two minutes, the longest eighteen, you don’t really know what to expect apart from a sensory overload. I am reminded of Jesus Lizard in places, but to some unexpected extreme; and then you may find yourself tripping down a psychedelic woodwind blowout next. It is quite something. The two-minute opener “Heat Patch” is the ultimate jerk out of complacency; the woodwind flutters like a crazed moth as the drums push and parry, the guitar a brief explosion. It feels like a supremely compressed box full of elastic bands just waiting to burst or somebody gritting their teeth until they crack. It is that sort of intensity. The bass playing throughout is clean and concise, but twists and turns, trying to lose the drums that at times come on like a machine gun. Just when you think you might have the measure, a track like “Let” appears with its slightly atonal horns. It is soft-ish and a little hesitant in its atmosphere, the drums mellow and the cymbal wash surprisingly welcoming. There is a little metal in the ingredients on the album, with the staccato drumming of “Buyout” definitely of the speed variety; they have the power of a waterfall, and with the churning bass and eccentric guitar, there is no space whatsoever to even breathe, each second stuffed with sound. There is a little more room on “Hewn”, but then it is just over eighteen minutes long. The shimmer of the cymbals is deeply affecting here, but it is impossible to relax because you just don’t know what will happen next. One abstract section of industrial noise reminded me of a particular Don Caballero track, the one where it feels as if you have inadvertently wandered into a sawmill. I think there are some vibes on “Stilled” and they hang in the air, circling ever higher, just out of reach, as if picking the right moment to swoop; while “Cushioned” is a free combo of cheery piano and clarinet. It is full and vibrant, and even has a touch of Hammond, which adds some drama, and the whole piece is exhilarating and desperate in equal measure. It is part of the joy of the album, seeing what instruments will be gathered together on each track. Alex also loves that sense of hypnotic repetition that comes from hammering a single chord and not relenting, as if trying to overload the listener or see how much they can take. It reminds me a little of that Human Impact album that was released recently, but with so many more tributaries flowing into the raging torrent. Gated is one of those records that gives up so much more every time you listen and that special feeling never grows old. You kind of have to take a deep breath and force yourself to relax once the album ends; and we all need that once in a while. – Mr Olivetti, FREQ http://freq.org.uk/
There are enough ideas in the first couple of numbers to fill a whole album, with wailing sax and clarinet and lightning propelled guitar in the brief opener ‘Heat Patch’- think Zappa- then Fripp in ‘The Celebration Restriction’. It’s a whirlwind, visceral listen with the free spirit of experimental jazz and the nous of heavy rock. But it is odd to speak of ‘Gated’ in terms of individual numbers, as the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and it works as a continuous piece of music as ‘Let’, the third number, heads off into chamber music. ‘Hewn’ is the longest piece, just over eighteen minutes, and carries on the frantic, unsettling expressionism of its predecessor, releasing the fury, fire and anger in a stormy cacophonous depiction of what, in my fevered imagination, was a war machine. Guitar, bass, drums predominate, in avant-rock mode. ‘Cushioned’ is a fourteen minute number, returning to chamber-style with mazy bass and sax runs, tremulous piano, organ and percussive interjections. ‘Brow’ is back to the grinding Frippian guitar chords with Grand Prix speed guitar and sax soling, juxtaposed with short reflective passages of play. ‘Gated’ was conceived and recorded over an intensive eight-month period and, while a difficult listen at times is compositionally sound, virtuosic and unforgettable. It’s a pity that Ward did not split up the longer numbers and that he does not reveal the thinking behind ‘Gated’ but that just adds to the intrigue- a boundary-breaking release from the relentlessly adventurous Discus label. – Phil Jackson, ACID DRAGON
Alex Ward is a multi-sided musician from Oxford, working as a composer, improviser playing primarily clarinet and guitar. As a free improviser, his experience started around 1986 after meeting Derek Bailey. Initially mainly performing on clarinet, since 2000 the electric guitar became more and more important in his improvising activity. In the 90s his work as a composer took flight. First in his work with Benjamin Hervé with rock band Camp Foot. First, he preferred the song format, later he started to compose instrumental music, performed by the numerous ensembles he initiated over the years. Also, he was a member of ensembles led by Chadbourne and by Simon H.Fell (died in 2020 and Ward dedicated the album to him. His discography contains dozens of albums of Ward as an improviser on clarinet or guitar, or as a composer and (co-)leader. Overviewing it, his latest solo work ‘Gated’ seems to be something different. If only for the many instruments Ward plays here: clarinets, saxophones, keyboards, drums, electric bass, guitars and software instruments. Performing his own ten highly composed works that take you on a breathtaking journey of 74 minutes. Every track has idiomatic characteristics of either math rock, avant rock, hardcore, RIO, free improvisation, chamber music, etc. Overall a rock-induced approach dominates, leading up to a journey that bursts of energy and drive. Although sometimes a bit too stereotypical for me, it absolutely convinces me because of the sense of urgency that radiates from these tracks that are best listened to in one go. The stylistic diversity is evident but the energy that vibrates in these pieces is a strong unifying factor. Opening track ‘Heat Patch’ is a bolded piece in R.I.O.-tradition. In ‘The Celebrated Restriction’ Ward integrates influences of hardcore and speed metal. Likewise in ‘Buyout’, with guitar and bass in the centre. In contrast ‘Let’ is a work that moves along lines of modern composed music with touches of jazz with wind instruments in a prominent role. With 18 minutes ‘Hewn’ is the most lengthy piece, starting with a free rock battle of bass and guitars. Followed by a section of very speedy and repetition-based rock. Pushing things more to the extreme we enter a zone of multi-layered heavy and noisy sounds. With still other phases to go in this intriguing work. With ‘Stilled’ we are in the centre of this tornado. Overall a quiet ambient-like work built from extended sounds with a pulse in the background, alternating with spacy and meandering woodwinds. ‘Cushoined’ with clarinet in the front is a very jumpy work of composing chamber music with fine intertwined movements. Ward did not only compose and perform everything, but he did also the recording and producing for eight months in 2020-2021. An impressive statement! A true breathtaking monster! – Dolf Mulder, VITAL WEEKLY
Alex Ward, ein Schüler des 2005 in Sheffield verstorbenen Derek Bailey, ist als multiinstrumental begabter Musiker und Komponist seit den 90er-Jahren des letzten Jahrhunderts vor allem in Jazz- und freieren Improvisationsmusikgefilden aktiv, meist als Teil von Bands oder größeren Ensembles. Mit “Hapless Days” erschien 2002 sein erstes Soloalbum, dem bisher einige weitere gefolgt sind, zuletzt im Juli 2021 bei Discus Music “Gated”, das Ward ganz im Alleingang eingespielt hat. Eintönig oder langweilig ist die Musik deswegen aber nicht. Ward bedient hier die volle Ausrüstung einer veritablen Band, ist an Rohrblättern, Gitarren, Bass, Tasten und Schlagzeug aktiv, und hat dann das Ganze noch mal mehr, mal weniger mit allerlei elektronischen Geweben und Geräuschen angereichert. Eine bunte, wenn auch durchweg deftige bzw. schräge Mischung ist auf “Gated” zu hören, die zwischen kantigem Avantprog, mehrspurigen Sax/Klarinettengeflechten, Free-Jazzigem, frickeligem Mathrock und freierem Tonbasteln hin und her wogt. Nicht selten wird auf “Gated” sperrig gerockt, riffen E-Gitarren schwer, begleitet von wüsten Tasteneinlagen, Saxgetröte und wuchtigen Bass/Schlagzeugmustern. Ein fast klassischer Avantprog/Mathrock ist das dann, mit bisweilen fast metallischer Heftigkeit, der sich nicht vor den besten Produktionen des Genres zu verstecken braucht. Es ist beeindruckend, das Ward dies alles ganz alleine zusammengebastelt hat. Fast ein Jahr hat das gedauert (Juli 2020 bis März 2021) und man kann sich gut vorstellen, wie er emsig Spur über Spur gelegt hat, bis das Endergebnis vielschichtig und klangvoll genug war. Eine recht anstrengende Angelegenheit ist “Gated” aber trotzdem, vor allem über 70 Minuten lang, auch wenn es ab und zu ein paar ruhiger schwebende Soundinseln gibt. Aber, man muss das Album ja nicht an einem Stück hören. Gut durchgepustet werden die Ohren auf jeden Fall, was ja hin und wieder sehr erfrischend sein kann. Avant-Freaks machen hier jedenfalls nichts falsch, so sie denn mal wieder eine Gehörgangreinigung benötigen. – Achim Breiling, BABYBLAUE SEITEN http://www.babyblaue-seiten.de/album_19773.html#oben
I suppose that one way into this music is to look at the images on the CD cover – modernist architecture with interesting and quirky variations that disrupt the monotony of tower blocks. I am assuming that the images are of buildings that people live in and that, given the world’s recent experiences of covid-19, that the word ‘gated’ signifies both a protected community (with the gates to keep out Others) and a restricted community (with the gates to keep us in). There are hints that this reading is on the right lines in titles like ‘The Celebrated Restriction’, track 2, and ‘Cushioned’, track 7. But other titles carry different significations – ‘Maybe it’ll break the heat’, track 10, possibly referring to a thunderstorm? These musings are inspired not only by the images and titles but also by the architecture of the pieces that Ward presents on this set: beautifully detailed sound sculptures, with layers and layers of instruments, rub shoulders with brutalist, noise onslaughts (often pounding guitar, thudding drums and frenetic bass). The mix of styles and rhythms and the abrupt transitions between these can (continuing the tower block metaphor) induce a sense of vertigo, so that the listener alternates between dizziness and a gradual return to calm. If these tunes had been created by a band, we’d admire the musicianship and the ways that the tracks like ‘Buyout’, track 5, have the experimentalism of, say, This Heat!. Knowing that Ward plays all of the instruments, one is impressed by the power, passion and honesty with which he plays each of these and the ways in which his approach to sound-making is driven by a powerful idiosyncratic logic of his own. ‘Hewn’, track 6, is aptly named because one gets the feeling that the music is being mechanically reclaimed from the very air around him; jack-hammer rhythms from drum and bass and drilling guitar swirls in repeated, looping patterns (if this was played in a lower, slower manner, one might call it ‘drone’ or ‘ambient’ – but at its pace and volume, it is anything but this). The very clever tricks that Ward pulls off in the pieces is to create just the right spacing between different experiences for the whole set to be an exhilarating and wildly entertaining ride. – Chris Baber – JAZZ VIEWS https://www.jazzviews.net/alex-ward—gated.html
British multi-instrumentalist Alex Ward plays everything but the kitchen sink on this thrilling solo effort, where he plays guitar, woodwinds, keys, electric bass and uses various software-based mechanisms, including drums. Well-known as a free improviser, the artist fuses electro parts with peppery horns choruses, wily solos on several instruments, jumbling drum patterns and clamorous distortion-laced guitar riffs. Ward is an avant-garde sound designer via odd metrics, and geometrical configurations that pounce on you and deflect off walls at warp speed. And it doesn’t end there. For example, his spiffy grunge-like guitar passages and non-stop momentum—other than some Chamber-induced rest stops—thrash, burn and morph into a horde of diametrical trajectories. Yet on “Buyout,” Ward interconnects prog metal licks with corpulent bass lines, thick chord voicings and zig-zagging currents. And the eighteen-minute piece “Hewn” is propelled via his maddening guitar progressions and pounding pulses, resulting in a titanium constructed wall of sound, touched with ominous grooves and climactic ascensions. On “Stilled” Ward imparts esoteric space grooves and a fluttering clarinet solo, largely executed with extended notes, but he’s all over the place on the following track, “Cushioned” where the free form intensity level soars onward. However “The Bradford Factor” may conjure memories of New York City’s fabled ‘downtown’ scene due to renegade death metal motifs and a brain-rattling modus operandi. This isn’t a kick-back and lounge around the stereo type setting. The listener needs to be up for the occasion for what is a stout and riotous sequence of dissecting and interrelated frameworks that took the artist 6-months to complete. And from a holistic perspective, the multilayered soundscapes convey a message that Ward had a visionary gameplan from the onset. Therefore, it’s not an album that meanders into a free-form interminable void. Recommended for those, willing to take on a challenge. – Glenn Astarita, ALL ABOUT JAZZ https://www.allaboutjazz.com/gated-alex-ward-discus-music
The term “renaissance man”, in common with a great many others that serve a purpose and provide a lazy person with an alternative to thinking, arguably gets bandied about too much, but in Alex Ward’s case there might be reason for applying it, not least because he’s a musician who has embraced on record everything from hardcore to post-rock via free improvisation and contemporary jazz, whatever that amounts to in these days of multiplicity. That breadth of interest is all over this set, so the The Celebrated Restriction has more to do with post-rock than it has with contemporary jazz, and because the whole album is performed and/or programmed by Ward a certain rigidity of form, which as it happens serves the form well, is pervasive. The following Let is 21st century chamber music, for want of a better way of describing it, and the air of vague menace which is a mark of it serves the practical end of placing Ward’s painstaking approach quite at odds with a lot of contemporary jazz, mainly because he’s clearly intent on making an impression that falls well outside of trying to dazzle the hapless listener with technique and application. The degree to which Ward manages to sound like a small group (that’s literally as in an improvising group made up of a small number of distinct musical personalities) is apparent on the lengthy Cushioned. The effect is tribute to his appreciation of how different instruments require different approaches, and indeed offer different characters if they’re treated properly. We’re back in post-rock territory for the closing Maybe It’ll Break The Heat, but in this instance the approach is leavened by a greater appreciation for both density and arbitrariness than is usual. The resulting music again defies the obvious limitations of the entirely solo approach, and leaves this reviewer with the feeling that he has a lot of catching up to do regarding Ward’s work in general. – Nic Jones, JAZZ JOURNAL
Holy hell, what a glorious cacophony! Apart from programmed drums, Alex Ward plays every instrument on Gated (including clarinets, saxophones, guitars, keyboards, and bass) and almost in competition with each other. Everything clashes and collides wonderfully in an aural assault that you’ll likely either love or hate. Obviously, I love it, and you’ll know within seconds whether you do too. It doesn’t even pretend to ease the listener in gently, so from the first notes of the short and spirited Heat Patch, you’ll know where you stand (or run). Alex Ward is a one man, avant, chamber, free-jazz, dark ambient, noise, and math rock band, taking elements of all these styles while never really sounding totally like any one of them. After a bruising and battering two track combo, Let allows some respite, though how much is arguable. This third track is quieter and slower-paced, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier listening. Chinese water torture is also quiet and slow-paced… But again, beauty is in the eye (or, in this case, ear) of the beholder. I have no doubt that Let will be too much for some listeners, but I love it! It’s a dissonant and unnerving highlight of the album. Buyout brings back the heavy math sound after the more chamber prog Let, before the longest (and probably most Marmite) track, the magnificent Hewn. This 18-minute assault takes no prisoners, and may well be too much even for those who enjoy the rest of the album. Somehow, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, so if you manage to make it through, say, the first four minutes, chances are you’ll enjoy the remaining fourteen. If you’ve made it to the other side of Hewn, you’ll surely be ready and raring for more, and Alex Ward has you covered, as you’re only halfway through Gated, and there is plenty more pleasure and pain to come. Stilled is a refreshing and subtle slice of sorbet to cleanse the palate, discordant, but in a minimalist manner. The clarinet of disquiet is employed, but quietly so. All in all, this is a quite beautiful track, whose impact is only greater after what preceded it. The sequencing of Gated is superb, like a roller coaster designed to ensure every twist and dip can be enjoyed to its full potential. Cushioned is another piece of free improvisation, but this time in a jazzy rather than ambient vein. Perhaps the most accessible track on the album, but being positioned where it is makes this factor rather irrelevant. Anyone who has made it this far is long past caring about accessibility. But for those who have, Cushioned will surely be another highlight. And, really, I’m not sure why I’m still writing. As per the introductory paragraph, you’ll either love Gated, or hate it. So listen to the opening track and see how you feel… – Roger Trenwith, THE PROGRESSIVE ASPECT https://theprogressiveaspect.net/
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