The premise for “Compassion Fatigue”, the latest release from multi-instrumentalist Ashley Reaks, is that the first song on the album will be one minute long, in the key of A, the second song two minutes long in the key of B, the third song three minutes long in the key of C and so on. On first realising this, one of the obvious knee jerk reactions may be that this is an abysmal gimmick, which totally overshadows the music within. Writing music within such strict guidelines may seem oppressive and mechanical. So, forget everything you have just read about the creation of the music and instead concentrate on the actual content. What we have here is a collection of tunes that so gloriously defy categorisation that they virtually stick two esoteric fingers up at any form of scene and go about their own business by their own rules. “Compassion Fatigue” as you would expect from being the first track, is one minute long and in the key of A, but forget I mentioned that, remember.
Sixty seconds of caustic lyrics superimposed over an almost progressive rock chord progression is the perfect introduction to this collection. The listener is hooked into the lyrical content in the same way that I can remember being drawn into the lyrics of Devo, there is something mischievous about the content, but it is dressed up in technically proficient and complex musical arrangements. Similarly, on “The World the Dead Have Made For Us” (two minutes long in B, sorry), the vocals and lyrics appear cheerful and family friendly, but hide a subtle message. “Cold Body Pussycat” illustrates how repetition in the vocal and instrumentation can accumulate layer upon layer to create mesmerising yet oddly sensitive music. In many ways that could be considered the theme to “Compassion Fatigue”, there is always a sense of “uneasy listening”. This can be illustrated again on “Wrong ‘Un”, as the music disguises the scathing nature of the vocal content. Contender for the best song title of the year so far must go to “Cot Death Grandmother”, and as the songs themselves become longer and therefore have available space to develop, the repetition and vocal wizardry take on a new level of sophistication. There is now even time for a saxophone solo and gently undulating vocal harmonies.
A dense, almost Philip Glass/Steve Reich-like element underpins “Street Cleaning” which really opens up the arrangements allowing for extended, almost baroque passages of saxophone, and progressive rock keyboard. It is now that the compositional proficiencies begin to shine through. The lyrics are no more family friendly for all this however, as the message is conveyed with a comical yet uncompromising edge. “Joyless Joy” is a virtual kitchen sink drama, “…Joyless Joy, face like a Berlin Wall” over a spacious reggae/jazz background, which includes a hysterical saxophone solo last heard on Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. With eight minutes to play with “Disconnected” comes in almost like an early Gong album, with space whispers and whimsical, almost Eastern textures, before locking down on a gently lilting mystical groove. The preference for these ears would be for the longer pieces that have the opportunity to develop and become articulate, but that is not to say that the shorter pieces do not fulfill their role within the context of “Compassion Fatigue”.