The Hammond organ is a divisive instrument. It was overused in ’60s rock and is forever associated with the hopelessly dated Doors, and resurrecting it runs the risk of being viewed as an ironic in-joke. Vol. 1: Spirit, the debut from Decoy — a trio of veteran U.K. jazz and improv artists, Alexander Hawkins (organ), John Edwards (bass), and Steve Noble (drums) — is a surprisingly successful rehabilitation of an oft-derided instrument. Central to the album’s success is the group’s refusal to deploy the organ in a predictable manner.
Opener “Outside In” serves as a vetting process for the potential listener, pairing bowed bass meanderings with technically impressive but decidedly abstract percussion from Noble and drenched in a thick sheen of aggressive organ squeal. The track navigates between progressive free jazz practice and the clatter generated by the noisier experiments of artists from a pop background like John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Two Virgins) to Jim O’Rourke (Two Organs).
“Decoy” sees the trio jettisoning a groove-based sound, beginning with a tentative percussive gestures and minimalist organ flourishes. The track has a claustrophobic feel and refuses to submit to forward momentum until the bitter end. If “Decoy” is the launching pad, then “Episode No. 69” is a journey to the stars, an atonal but compulsively listenable example of exhilarating improv that recalls jazz as much as forward-thinking contemporary post rockers like Tape.
“Native Origins” is the longest and most deliberately composed track. Here, the Hammond is pushed to its breaking point and resembles the sound of an early synthesizer. Noble is startlingly direct in his drumming, playing with less reserve than on the preceding tracks. Edward’s relatively conservative bass work serves as a strong counterpoint to Hawkin’s aggro organ attack. Eventually all hell breaks loose in the second half of the track, a punishing and relentless aural assault.
Spirit works as an organ record precisely because it rarely sounds like an organ record. It’s impossible to disguise the sound of a Hammond, but it’s very possible to innovatively incorporate the organ as a lead instrument, as Decoy prove. Some traditional church music has a strong tradition of organ improvisation, and in France organ improvisation is a revered tradition. The members of Decoy prove that in the right hands even the most unlikely of instruments can be the key ingredient of progressive and provocative modern music.