Ratchet Orchestra’s latest release Hemlock, like its namesake, can be difficult to ingest. This Montreal based collective of over 30 musicians present the listener with a fascinating yet puzzling set of free form orchestra jazz numbers. Recorded by Godspeed You! Black Emperor bassist Thierry Amar and produced by Nicolas Caloia, Ratchet Orchestra blends a variety of incongruent musical elements together with mixed results as a listening experience.
“Winnow” eases the listener into the album with its dreamy introduction, punctuated by a pair of masterfully executed saxophone and trombone solos respectively. This slowing burning cut is easily one of the most sonically relaxed of the album. The arrival of a jarring string movement is the track’s only moment of unease. Ratchet Orchestra generally come off stronger on their shorter compositions, particularly on “Yield,” which bounces along in a stately manner on a rhythm infusing both elements of swing and waltz.
The longer, more improvisational selections from Hemlock will likely be the sticking point for many listeners in terms of appreciating this album as a complete experience. The loose arrangements on tracks like “Dusty” and “Safety” highlight different sections of the orchestra and to showcase the undeniably impressive musical talent at play here. What gets lost in translation is a sense of purpose. At their best, these free form sound experiments can be mystifying in their absurdity. At their worst, these tracks can sound aimless, meandering, and unnecessarily cacophonous.
Hemlock is an interesting listen to be sure. There’s enough going on to keep one attentive to all the different instruments, moods, and rhythms at play here. Its indulgences do add up after a while, resulting in a somewhat uneven album as a whole. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be said that Ratchet Orchestra are definitely stretching and playing with the boundaries and taboos of jazz and orchestrated music.