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Founded by Greg Anderson back in 1998, the Southern Lord label is renowned for its focus on the doomier, heavier and bleaker end of the musical spectrum. Their gloomy album covers are adorned with dystopian imagery or religious/satanic themes, often featuring a sinister illustration of a wolf or a goat or a massive fanged serpent or something. Turning to the reverse sleeve, you’ll find yourself confronted with song titles such as ‘Blood Swamp’, ‘Storm Shadow’, ‘Cursed Realms of the Winterdemons’ and ‘The Perpetual Screaming of the Hate Shards Pt. IV’ (I made that last one up but you get the picture).
Fontanelle’s guitarist Rex Ritter has toured and recorded with Anderson’s hooded drone merchants Sunn O))), producer Randall Dunn has worked with the likes of Sunn O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room and, yes, Vitamin F’s cover is indeed largely black. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that the music contained within it is quite so much fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not fun as in 'Look! They’re all wearing sparkly capes'” or fun as in 'Hey! Their percussionist is a tap dancer!' or fun as in 'Wow! A guest verse from bewigged cartoon rapper Nicki Minaj doing a poor English accent!' No, this is fun in a playful, avant-jazz-funk-fusion, 'What if Miles Davis hadn’t died just before the explosion of post-rock?' kind of way.
Ritter and the other founding Fontanelles have assembled a gifted gaggle of horn players - Steve Moore (Earth, Sunn O)))), Dave Carter, Hans Teuber, Eric Walton (Skerik), Jef Brown (Jackie-O Motherfucker)... - and allowed them to blow, breathe, toot and parp all over their sedated funk backing.
The opener is not called ‘Plight of the Stillborn Hell-Troll’. It is called ‘Watermelon Hands’ and it begins with some laid-back drumming, shortly accompanied by the band’s splodgy cosmic wobbles, before the smooth, rolling brass appears. At first, this proves reminiscent of the melancholic style honed by The Drift’s much-missed trumpeter Jeff Jacobs, but as the track develops, the horn becomes increasingly hyperactive and in the last minute or so bursts into full-bore free-jazz Ornette Coleman territory.
‘The Adjacent Possible’ remains fairly tranquil throughout, bearing a faint resemblance to a comatose take on Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme, its jazzed minimalism is repetitive though not uneventful.
The title track’s faster drumming supports a range of wonky effects evoking a florescent alien tapping and circling his long green fingers around the rims of wine glasses half-full of glowing galaxy goo, with the assorted brass floating past like mellow space-ships.
‘Traumaturge’ and ‘When the Fire Hits the Forest’ get things really grooving. Both bring to mind Funkadelic, although each in different ways. The former’s swaggering rhythm guitar hangs behind the frantic brass which jams away like it’s snake charming a ghost adder with an illicit Ouija horn. The lead guitar on the latter, meanwhile, is a blistering, sizzling beast that Eddie Hazel himself would be proud of.
‘Ataxia’ fuses jazz, rock and funk so triumphantly it makes you wonder why more bands don’t try this - probably because it’s actually a lot harder than Fontanelle make out - and the closer ‘Reassimilated’ calms things back down; returning to the lighter sound of the first two tracks, it gives the album’s journey a cyclical feel, providing room for relaxation after the invigorating mid-album jazz-funk work-out.
Vitamin F is an old term for the fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 which help create/repair body tissue and are thought to reduce levels of depression. It’s good to know that if all the goth robes, pentagram necklaces, and guttural lyrics about “placid pits of violent tar and bitumen regurgitated by demons chained to misery” are getting you down, Dr Southern Lord will happily prescribe healthy doses of therapeutic, exuberant jazz fusion.