Masterology: the Pioneers of New British Funk - The New Mastersounds - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #39

This release has taken me somewhat by surprise. We Brits are pretty good when it comes to making most music, but funk music? That’s not really our area of expertise - well, so I thought. The New Mastersounds are just that – a new band (formed in 1999, still touring and making albums as regularly as ever) masters in their sphere, pioneers in this relatively small and unknown field of British funk.

This particular album is a “greatest hits” of sorts: not ideal, but hey, it’s all I have. It has actually worked out quite well because listening to it has given me a pretty good summation of the band’s style as well as their variety. For a bunch of white English guys, these guys sure know how to make it groovy. Mostly sticking to a basic drums-bass-guitar-organ combination, they manage to wrangle every ounce of funk from their weapons of choice. There are searing, almost eye-watering powerhouses of songs seated alongside reflective, jazzier compositions – the lion lying down with the lamb, if you will. These deeper songs can best be described as a combination of the tight funk of The Meters and Hendrix’s post-Ladyland acid R&B explorations.  Guitarist Eddie Roberts certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for Band of Gypsys-era Hendrix on songs like The Minx, (a live track) where his virtuosity and wah-wah drenched guitar tone cast a golden halo of attention around him. Yet he’s earthier than Hendrix, more focused. His head and fingertips aren’t drifting through the cosmos on some mind-bending trip. (I mean let’s face it; half the time Hendrix performed live he was pretty high and probably not even trying that hard. Imagine if he was straight all the time? But that’s another matter) On other occasions, such as the jazzy Colorado Sun, his tone is softer and more jazz influenced, somewhat resembling John Scofield. But truthfully, this band is all about the band themselves and the dynamic of the music. You can’t really take one without the other. The essence of funk really lies in its groove: the strong drive from the drum/bass pairing and the extended vamps. The New Mastersounds do this with enormous success. The drummer and bassist particularly could have been separated at birth, so closely do they work together. Tighter than a pair of leather trousers you mistakenly shrunk in the wash, the permeating groove that these guys sustain is just remarkable. As I said before, for some white British guys they have got the very essence of funk music down to a tee; Mr. James Brown himself would be proud.

Pure funk music is essentially dead. Aspects of it have been integrated into all sorts of music, being a backbone of hip hop production, an area of exploration for jam bands like Phish and a strong influence for some modern metal. But the last time anyone did pure, straight funk music to this extent would have to be the 70’s. Sure, maybe you can say that times have changed and that The New Mastersounds are in fact hopelessly trying to resurrect something that died a long time ago, kind of like people who learn Latin in school. But I don’t see it this way, I prefer to see it as an actual advancement of the genre to an extent that it hasn’t seen in a long time. They draw influences from other genres like jazz and rock, add some odd instrumentation (there’s an electric sitar in Better Off Dead; last [and only] time I heard that was on Steely Dan’s first record back in 1972) but mostly they just add a lot of brilliant songs to the funk catalogue. The most stunning example of this is perhaps Nervous; a high octane toe-tapper, driven by a very funky horn riff, strong drumming and some extremely wild organ. It’s just the sort of thing you’d dream of finding in a dusty record store somewhere. They also lay down some wonderfully soft jazzy music on the track Your Love Is Mine and let guest singer Corrine Bailey Rae take the lead on this one. Her insatiably beautiful voice floats and lingers above the musical Elysium to create one of the most gorgeous and romantic songs I’ve ever heard. Hats off, gentlemen.

As I say, this was certainly an unexpected release if ever I’ve experienced one, but it’s been one of the most satisfying. Pure funk is fun, bodacious and makes you want to get up and dance, and The New Mastersounds deliver on all three fronts. They’re also contemporary enough that I really feel good by recommending them. If you enjoy anything in the way of funk/jazz/soul I highly recommend this to you.

Words - Adam

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