Three Rock Mountain  

The Sound Of Music
23 — Saso

Review: Saso Live in Rua Red Tallaght 22nd January 2010

I stopped writing these reviews after my last piece on Saso. I had set out with the intent of highlighting exciting new music I had come across. I felt Saso stood head and shoulders above the competition, so what point in continuing the series? I freely admit I'm a fan. However musical taste is a personal thing and the music business is but a humble branch of the entertainment industry. This probably explains why Saso aren't making guest appearances on 'Celebrity High School Glee on Ice' or whatever grot is propping up the schedules these days.

Saso are not the sort of guys to be pictured stumbling out of this month's fashionable West End nightclub leaving behind a comatose Amy Winehouse and a heartbroken Lily Allen. They're the sort of guys who make music. This was, I believe, the original meaning of the word "musician" before it became besmirched by the Westlifes and 50 Cents of the world.

Musicians make music. The problem is that quite a lot of people can make music. Robbie Williams has a bunch of talented people behind him providing the music for him to sing over, but we don't know their names and are never likely to. Because they're not important. One reasonably capable bass guitarist sounds much the same as the next reasonably capable bass guitarist and presumably could be replaced without anybody really noticing or caring. Vocalists are admittedly a different matter - by virtue of their role they become the public face of their bands and pretty quickly come to believe that they are the band itself, with the other members filling the role of hired minions. That is why when bands break up over creative differences, the split is often the vocalist versus rest of world.

The exception to this sorry rule is where somebody brings a particular and personal quality. For example New Order's Peter Hook added a unique readily-identifiable signature to the band's sound (and carried himself with an air that hinted of barely supressed violent urges lest anybody suggest he was a readily replacable bass player like all the others). A person's unique talents were the fount of personal celebrity in pre-Warholian days and are still the best way to avoid contributing to the bass guitarist unemployment problem.

Which is all a tangent to my orignal query as to why Saso remain relatively unknown despite an impressive canon of work. I suppose the answer is that they are musicians rather than tabloid entertainment. They want for their music to be known, not their personal choice in nightclubs. They want to be renowned for the work they've created rather than for romantic entanglements with random passing supermodels. This is not to suggest that the band would shun trappings of wealth, fame and power were such to be visited upon them - just that the music comes first, because that's what it's all about.

Saso are currently putting together their fourth album and have taken a very interesting approach to it - they decided to create it in public. They booked themselves into the Rua Red performance facility in Tallaght for a weekand invited the public around for two hours a day to watch them work - playing, composing, waiting for the other guy to come back from the jacks, fiddling, tweaking, re-arranging, stopping for a cuppa, re-tuning, trying it again from the top and generally exposing the creative process. To focus this initiative, the band scheduled a free concert on the Friday evening to showcase their newly-generated work. Now while most emergent bands would be looking to get themselves onstage at Whelan's or the Twisted Pepper to maximise exposure to the Young and the Gig-going, Saso find themselves conspiring with South Dublin County Council to perform in a white gallery space in front of a small intimate audience.

Most gig spaces are painted matt black and are kept dark. In this brightly-painted glossly white space, there was no nook for the band to hide in. Which was the entire point. The band, in classical guitar, bass, keyboards and drums format, arranged themselves in a circle facing inwards with speakers between each of them, again facing inwards. The audience was seated in a ring around the band and so had an unprecedented view of every tic and gesture in the performance. This performance in the round was being filmed with a number of fixed and roving cameras. ThreeRock was standing immediately behind vocalist Jim Lawler's shoulder and so went to great lengths not to scratch himself inappropriately during the performance lest he find himself immortalised on YouTube as that-bloke-with-the-itchy-bits-behind-the-singer.

Saso kicked off the evening with Jim announcing "This is a track from our new album" - words guaranteed to empty the floor at any gig where the punters only ever want to hear your reassuringly-familiar greatest hits, not the latest jazz-fusion noodlings your tortured artistic sensibility has insisted must be foisted on the world. With Saso however we were in safe hands. I can report that it was good and that there were no jazz-fusion leanings anywhere. Their first track was not only new material, but also instrumental, again contravening all established rules of showmanship. It was light, musical, intricate yet crystal clear. That's when it hit me that I could hear every nuance and element of the sound.

This isn't something that normally happens. Normally the sound at a gig is set up with the aim of making your ears bleed. I have come away from performances by some of the biggest names in the world no knowing if I had just been listening to a tape of their last album for the previous ninety minutes. Now, this extra-clear effect is a feature of classical music performed live where the sheer multiplicity of sound sources in the orchestra cannot possibly be reduced to recorded form without discernible flattening and compressing. Classical live performances surprise with a multi-faceted nature unfamiliar from their recorded shadows. And so it was with Saso - whihch may have been the point they sought to make by performing in an art gallery rather than a mosh pit.

This qualitative difference was particularly noticable where the material was familiar from Saso's previous albums. I've listened to 'Type A Jitters' hundreds of times yet never properly noticed the harsh metallic nature of the metronomic 'tck-tck-tck' noise which starts it off and underpins the entire song. In particular, I started noticing when tracks were tweaked from their original format (tweaked only, mind you - no jazz-fusion noodling in sight). I remember hearing a particularly funky drum solo that I would swear wasn't previously recorded - but should have been. It was reminiscent of the Stone Roses before too much cocaine and ego got in the way of the creative process. Creative process was what Saso had come to the performance space to play with and I want them to run with it. I want them to come up with great songs with funky drum solos. I want them to come up great songs with added guitar bits at the end. I want them to take their musicality and add a killer bassline. I want them to take their technical prowess and show the rest of the world how it should be done. I want them to turn the volume up to 11 and rock out. Saso - the charts are rubbish! Come save modern music!

Review: The Middle Ages by Saso March 2007


Album #3 - The Middle Ages

I've been avoiding writing this piece. I started this music column to demonstrate that there's new music out there worth listening to, rather than simply retreating to my bedroom with the Led Zepplin box set and waiting for Simon Cowell to get hit by a bus. I don't do this for commercial gain; it's a blog - a bit of harmless fun. It's just my opinion, thrown out there for your amusement and to pander to my ego.

Suddenly this isn't good enough. This is serious. I've stumbled across a band so good that I want to shout about them from the rooftops and I want the world to take notice. Frankly, dear reader, I don't think I've got it in me to do them justice, so I've been putting off writing about them.

Except I can't get their music out of my head. They're not some bunch of newbies with one good single on an EP and no prospect of a follow up album. These guys have three high quality albums to their name already. Step forward and take a bow, Jim Lawler and Ben Rawlins. They're from Dublin, Ireland. Their name is Saso and you've probably never heard of them. Jim composes and arranges the music and Ben produces. They seem like nice guys - they respond reluctantly to e-mails and don't like to talk about their work, preferring to let the music speak for itself. Like me they're also big fans of the Talk Talk album Spirit of Eden having given it a credit for inspiration on their second album!

It started innocently enough. In a moment of boredom one day, I went round some of the bands that had accumulated under my MySpace friends list and listened to some of the tracks on their music players. This one track just stuck out - it was called 'Type A Jitters' and I really liked it. I set it as the track which automatically plays when you load my own Myspace profile and went about my business thinking no more about it. Then one day I was idly rifling through the racks at Road Records on my way to Hogan's pub when I came across their new album The Middle Ages and made the connection with the track I had previously heard. A short, distracted thought process and the fact that I had just been to an ATM meant that I casually became the owner of their latest CD.

I do this all the time. I'll find something I like the look of for whatever reason - a remembered review in a magazine, interesting cover art, a funny band name - buy the album and eventually get around to listening to it. It may make an impact or not. If not, it gets dutifully filed away in a case and forgotten about. If it does, you'll probably hear about it here.

The Middle Ages doesn't make an impact the very first minute you listen to it- there's only one track likely to serve as a single ('Red Scare'), but then again it's not that type of album and Saso are not that type of band. Instead you carry it around in your head, mentally replaying snippets and yearning to hear the whole again. Saso sound like an Irish Radiohead. They both have a heartrendingly beautiful melancholy to their work. The album is best appreciated as a cohesive whole. Like watching the weather change or observing the tide ebb and flow, it takes effort and patience, but leaves you amazed at the beauty you have observed.

Album #1 - Big Group Hug

This is not to suggest that Saso are a Thom Yorke tribute band - far from it. It's just that their work has that disconnected other worldly feel that Radiohead have perfected. Saso's sound is broad and deep and assuredly musical. Sometimes (such as the track 'Chasing Monsters') they have the gravelly tone of Martin Grech. Sometimes it sounds yearning and beseeching like Sting's one good album Ten Summoner's Tales. It ends with a beautifully calm instrumental piece which leaves you quite relaxed and at peace with the world - I smiled when I realised it was titled 'Chloroform'.

Before long The Middle Ages was on heavy rotation and I was a confirmed fan. In order to avoid wearing out the CD, I purchased their 2001 debut album Big Group Hug. Now most bands that get as far as a second album will have either matured beyond belief from their amateur beginnings or plain simply run out of ideas. In short, it can be a very dodgy proposition buying the earlier albums before the band have mastered their craft. To continue the Radiohead comparisons, there's little except 'Creep' to justify a puchase of their debut effort Pablo Honey.

With Saso, there is a very small but distinct difference between 2006's The Middle Ages and 2001's Big Group Hug. It's one of tone. The albums tell different stories, but in the same musically assured manner. Astoundingly, the band apparently sprang fully formed onto recorded medium and their first album is as capable and masterful as their most recent. 'Lazy Bones' is a soft-toned piece with sparse vocals, yet with a hard, dark undercurrent that leaves the listener beguiled yet vaguely uneasy. 'Blood Bath' comes on like a Kid A era instrumental before pausing in the middle for a rant by comedian Michael Richards.

Album #2 - I can do nice

I was delighted with both purchases and posted a message on the band's MySpace page saying what a happy camper I was. I was much surprised to receive a message back suggesting that I should also give their sophomore album I Can Do Nice a shot. It's their personal favourite but not as immediately accessible as the other two. As you know, Three Rock Mountain loves a challenge and I acquired a copy in short order. I have to agree with their prognosis. It's not as 'poppy' as the other two albums, but is much richer and rewarding. As with their other works, it needs to be taken all of a whole, and yet contains 'Type A Jitters', the closest to a killer single they've ever produced.

But it is definitely more experimental. Halfways through the album comes a track called 'Soft Focus' - it has the soft occasional bass notes of a Talk Talk number supporting a low-key sustained keyboard, behind which flutters a noise like steam boiling off. It reminded me of flying across the Atlantic in the middle of the night onetime, resting my head against the fuselage wall in fatigue and hearing the air rushing past in a great stream as I drifted in and out of consciousness. In short this tune took me to another place.

Click here to listen to some of their tunes yourself.

Saso are a very special band making very special music. I know it's all a matter of personal taste, but this is mine. I think this is the best music I've come across since I started this column. I urge you to give it a try, too.

Never seen anything so beautiful in all my life, perfect… I'm in love with this moment… Everything is now possible…death is insignificant…I'm at one with nature…God is within me now - 'We're Sorry' from The Middle Ages

© Kevin O'Doherty 2007