One of the worst sins of a review is to suggest that a given record is that you’ll “love or hate it”, or in essence, “people have different tastes and I don’t really have an opinion”. Some albums are more tempting than others to lazily group into that critique limbo. The sentiment is a rather Pontius Pilate move. Go out and buy it yourself because I don’t care enough to lay my cards on either side of the fence. So, as an act of defiance against this kneejerkiness, I am going to endeavour to make some firm statements about Ubik by Ping Machine.
First, this is a composed album with a large ensemble. The arrangements are intentional, paced with purpose and performed the same. I shan’t list the instruments involved. A large cluster of the usual suspects, saxes of all types, marimbas, percussion, brass are all present. A couple of notable mentions are some cracking distorted bass guitar and the use of electronics within the familiars.
Broken up into fourteen tracks, Ubik seems to be a unified whole, just marked out by the tracks. Almost all blend into each other either by actual sound or by a continuing motif or chord sequence. The overall effect is one of a wider piece, performed in one take. Whether or not this is the practical truth is neither here nor there, the record flows as one.
The tracks have no names to give any sort of thematic background or conceptual framework. This is a surprising piece that, jumps and starts, fits and burbles at you. Moments of cinematicism (why not? Try that word on your uncle, yeah?) abound across all tracks from frantic to melancholy to fraught to comfort. And there are even leitmotif bookends, framing the whole scattergun affair. Bursts of wind and brass punctuate very free composition. There is very little melodically to hold onto from moment to moment, shifting tone and harmony as it feels.
Some of Ubik is genuinely thrilling. I especially enjoyed the distorted bass riding underneath a driving ensemble. As a counterpoint to more familiar “jazz” sections (and I say familiar loosely), there are effective dynamic shifts that pushed the right buttons. They were, however, too few and far between for me. At just over an hour in length, I felt my patience dwindle and crave for either more variation or more identity. This record wriggled and squirmed with my attention, and where that can be fun and thrilling, I was ready to finish (only slightly) before Ping Machine were.