|"This version of the SME fulfilled every expectation of improvised music. The quality of their listening was intense, their attention to detail was microscopic, their responses were endlessly varied and engaging, their instrumental skills were given over to the creation of an unfolding group relationship rather than a showcase of parallel virtuosity. All of which may explain why not a huge number of people liked them.
Me, I loved them. I miss the sight of this group, the singularity of their sound, the richness and unintentional comedy of their collective behaviour in front of an audience: John Stevens scattering clicks and rustles from his mini-drum kit like a demented dolphin, head thrown back to let out ghostly moans and ululations; Roger Smith apparently suffering a medically obscure cross ankled, splayed finger aphasia in the quest to pinpoint the smallest of notes concealed on his already quiet instrument; Nigel Coombes ploughing through trace memories of Paganini, larks ascending, Psycho and Chic, still wearing velvet in the fallout days of punk; Colin Wood Apollonian and upright as a hat stand, seemingly perched above the nervous ferocity of this near inaudible scrapping and scraping yet deep within it.
There is a moment, 16 minutes into the very long The Only Geezer an American Soldier Shot was Anton Webern, when Stevens drops a fantastic cornet bleat into the insectivorous scurrying. Like a platoon of industrious midges paralysed by the incoming fart of a predatory superbug, the others throw a wall of silence in self-defense. The recovery is beautiful to hear, the process of improvisation laid bare, as in a painting of medical students surveying a corpse. Less than ten minutes later in the same piece, Stevens does it again, this time unleashing his famous West London Buddhist chant. Again, Coombes, Wood and Smith play musical statues. It takes them a little while to make the decision but when they clam up, they do so as one, momentarily abandoning Stevens, the implausible Tibetan monk, to a harsh spotlight of their spontaneous construction.
Lasting for only a few years before Wood disappeared to India, this was a group that relished such glorious incidents of embarrassment and hiatus. The mutual incomprehension tended to be address with a hurricane of hilarity and beer in the pub afterwards. In his workshops and groups, Stevens always passed on a vital lesson by example - be serious without being po-faced - and this created a robust context for music that was delicate yet far from fragile.
Listening to the quartet I hear a music of implication. Individual events are too fleeting, to fugitive to be fully absorbed. This was music that refused to hang about or to make the obvious moves, a febrile cluster of flurries, stop motion rhythms, blunted and truncated snaps, drones that lost the will to drone, pitches too brittle or transient to accommodate melody, larks that promised ascent then dropped dead out of the sky.
The trio was slightly different: more a three dimensional geometry of fluid colour lines, points of light and odd surface protuberances. Kitless with Elbow highlights the difference between the three players. Playing mini-trumpet, Stevens brings some of his love for free jazz into a group that was essentially chamber. This was reckless music that somehow expressed sensitivity through insensitivity and if Stevens wanted to blast it, then the others weren't about to damp his ardour.
So, if this music was so outrageously good, why did audiences prefer tosh of inferior virtue? LOW PROFILE is only the second release for this SME quartet, the first being BIOSYSTEM, released on Incus in 1977 and sounding even better now than it did then. They should have been filmed. More of their gigs should have been recorded. On the other hand, perhaps there's just about enough. To listen closely to their music can be exhausting like tuning in to the central nervous system of an ant colony; like hydrotherapy with tintacks. No rest, no comfort, no soft fluffy bottom. Just search and reflect, as John would say. How sad that he's no longer here."
DAVID TOOP - THE WIRE 1999