Graded on a Curve:
King Champion Sounds, Between Two Worlds

On October 22, Hive Mind Records released Between Two Worlds, the 13-track double album from King Champion Sounds. The Dutch band’s latest augments their core lineup of seven, namely Ajay Saggar, Oli Heffernan, G W Sok, Mees Siderius, Holly Habstritt Gaal, Elsa van der Linden and Chris Moerland, with august guests including Mia Doi Todd, Gerry Love (formerly of Teenage Fanclub), Sally Timms and Jon Langford (of the Mekons), Janet Beveridge Bean (of Eleventh Dream Day and Freakwater), and Glasgow poet Marieke McKenna. The results spread out stylistically and durationally, cohering into a strong late-year entry on 2021’s list of new releases. It’s available on 2LP and digital.

The autumn arrival of Between Two Worlds bookends pretty nicely with Oh Temple!, the first record by the kosmische and expansionist rock-aligned University Challenged, also a double set and also released by Hive Mind back on January 29, 2021, this connection pertinent as Ajay Saggar and Oli Heffernan are two-thirds of that band.

King Champion Sounds have chalked up their fifth album with Between Two Worlds if you count the 2014 10-inch Songs for the Golden Hour, which I do because they do. This means they’ve been around a while longer than University Challenged. To nail it down, King Champion Sounds was formed by Saggar and G W Sok, a former member of The Ex, in 2013, with debut Different Drummer coming out that year. Song for the Golden Hour followed, then To Awake in That Heaven of Freedom in 2016 and For a Lark in 2018 (three 7-inch records have also been released, the latest in 2019, a split with Surplus 1980).

Through it all, the lineup has been surprisingly stable (alongside Saggar and Sok, Heffernan, Siderius and Moerland have contributed since Different Drummer), which is pretty crucial when inviting so many guests into the recording process. From To Awake in That Heaven of Freedom forward, they’ve welcomed the guitars of J Mascis, Tom Carter, Alasdair Roberts and Steve Gunn, the saxophone of Ab Baars, the electronics of BJ Nilssen, the violin of Saskia van der Giessen, and the vocals of Imaad Wasif and Mike Watt (and I note that this is an incomplete list).

It would be easy to settle into an indie/ u-ground highlight reel of sorts rather than honing a distinct personality, but Between Two Worlds is an appealingly coherent affair, even more impressive as it’s such a bountiful offering. The album-opening instrumental “One Man Poem” begins with gradually unfolding psychedelia, like it’s basking in the early morning sunshine after camping out on a mountain, only to kick into a sort of motorik gallop that’s infused with the horn section of Gaal (trumpet), van der Linden (sax) and Moerland (trombone), plus Saggar’s guitar rawness and deeper in the track, some synthesizer.

The succinct “This Monday Friday,” which taps into an vaguely noirish vibe, also unfurls sans vocals, serving as a solid prelude to “Telemetry,” its drift soundtrack-ish for a good while but incorporating a succession of electronic bloops in the latter half. “I Am a Horse” rounds out side one as the vocals of Sok and Gaal enter the scene, infusing the up-tempo number with a bit of post-punk ambience.

“Remembering Easby Abbey” presents Mia Doi Todd in a rather surprising context. After a slow buildup I was reminded a bit of Julie Andrews contributing to the soundtrack of some mindfuck dystopian sci-fi flick, as Todd’s vocals are accompanied by Siderius’ vibraphone and enveloped by electronics occasionally blooming into the symphonic. “Libra Libra Libra” retains the mallet work as the track hovers betwixt raga-gamelan-drone and staticky dub.

Side two’s finale “I’m in Between Two Worlds” gets even deeper with the dub, echoes abounding as there’s even some dusted melodica, but it’s also Gerry Love’s moment to shine as he lends not just his voice to the cut but also guitar, bass and autoharp. The extent of his contribution underscores Between Two Worlds’ reality as a studio affair, with remote recording surely involved (Saggar having “conceived, recorded, mixed and produced” the album from October of 2020 to April of this year), though an aura of immediacy ultimately wins out.

That is, the record avoids registering as a pandemic project. Instead, it’s warm and organic and full of unexpected maneuvers, like the swirling and increasingly ominous Goth moves of “Ngong Hills,” as the belladonna-tinged atmosphere refuses to subside during the Sally Timms-sung “Thou Hurricane” (Jon and Tommy Langford and Janet Beveridge Bean bring the backing vocals).

The main diff is that “Thou Hurricane” can be aptly described as rocking, providing some spark and heft to an ample recording. In a different fashion, so does “Seasick,” which ends side three and features a diary reading by Marieke McKenna accompanied by sounds that enhance but never overwhelm her words.

Sung by Sok and Gaal, “City in Wait” reestablishes the post-punk sensibility they presented earlier on the album, while “Motto Grotto,” the set’s third instrumental, is a showcase for the horn section. And for “Balthus,” former full-on band member Ditmer Weertman returns with his saxophone as part of an excursion that’s both foreboding and meditative. Call it dark kosmische perhaps, and call Between Two Worlds another fine record from King Champion Sounds.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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