AMN Reviews: Oli Steidle & The Killing Popes – Ego Pills (2019; Shhpuma)

Oli Steidle is the drummer on Phillip Gropper’s two most recent releases (Consequences and Live at Bimhaus), both of which rank highly on AMN’s “album of the year” charts. Here, Steidle leads his own group through 8 tracks of jazz-inflected avant-rock with refined production and a few doses of free improv.

Steidle is joined by Frank Möbus on guitar, Phil Donkin on bass, and both Dan Nicholls and Kit Downes on keyboards. Most of the pieces fall into the 5-7 minute time frame and are structured around a handful of main themes, though each musician appears to be given leeway to explore. A number of guests provide additional contributions covering vocals and including Gropper on sax. But for the most part, Ego Pills is instrumental.

A line can be drawn between Steidle and group’s efforts here and the 70’s Rock in Opposition (RIO) movement. But this album is closer to that of those influenced by RIO than the progenitors of that loose genre. Thus, comparisons with European outfits Blast, X-Legged Sally, Fukkeduk might be appropriate, though Steidle and group incorporate more electric jazz.

As examples, Alive begins with a freeform set between bass, guitar, and keyboards, before a tense – almost mechanical – drum pattern cuts in. The main theme rapidly alternates between rock-oriented rhythms and more angular runs and motifs (with the focus on the latter as the track evolves). Möbus’s guitar takes a jangly and discordant lead in many of these. The dual keyboards are also emphasized, with one providing backing chords and the other leads and effects. In contrast, Strange Condition features punctuated and crooked melodies over slightly less chaotic drumming, with keyboards adding a surprising amount of spaciousness and atmosphere to an otherwise frantic track. But once again, each musician manages to squeeze in a few unconventional improvisations of his own.

Ego Pills is an unusual and compelling release that crosses genres with ease, resulting in a barely-classifiable amalgam of creative music that is full of surprises. Well done.

EGO PILLS