Chamber Demons and Prankster Gods

Edmund Welles (the Bass Clarinet Quartet) and Arrington di Dionyso’s “Malaikat dan Singa,” at The Hotel Utah, Sun. Oct. 17, 2010

One fun thing to do while watching Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet, is to pick out who’s making which sounds. Ah, so that’s where the high squeaking is coming from. That’s the thumping sound. There’s the one doing that awesome riff.

Some of that is visual, based on the fingers and on who’s taking a breath when.  Some of it, though, is your own ears being able to pinpoint the sounds that exactly, even though the four players are so close together, usually facing each other in a boxlike formation. Maybe the bass clarinet’s range helps; it’s easy to pick out the low, low growls from the high screeches.

That’s fun even at a distance, but at a place like front and center at the Hotel Utah, where the band is practically close enough to kick you, it’s a treat.

You’ll hear Edmund Welles described as a “metal” jazz quartet, and that’s technically true. Cornelius Boots draws inspiration from metal bands; he’s arranged covers of bands like Sepultura; and, well, just look at this album cover:

But the music, to me, is a rollicking mix of jazz, classical, rock — and yeah, maybe some metal, not just in the occasional power chords but in the machine-gun notes in some of the arrangements, reminiscent of the relentlessness of metal’s drumming or rhythm guitar. It’s personable and fun. After a particularly rapid-fire, complex piece — like “Synge,” inspired by Melt Banana — you and the band are both left smiling.

I’ve now seen Edmund Welles in concert-hall and bar settings, and either one works. The music is serious and complex enough to get the arthouse treatment. But it also works as a fresh instrumental breather from the indie rock scene. A sense of humor helps.  Boots noted that the band was once accused of not bringing the “party vibe,” so they did their hit single (so to speak) from their first album, Agrippa’s 3 Books.  It’s an ace cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” Definitely a highlight.

Boots is the instigator and arranger for the quartet, and while he’s been fortunate to have some big local names pass through Edmund Welles’ ranks, it’s even better that he’s had a stable lineup for the past few years. The band used sheet music only for the newer songs, which will hopefully see an album release next year.

From Arrington de Dionyso (who also happens to play bass clarinet) I was anticipating something noisy and improvised, but this turned out to be a rock trio, Malaikat dan Singa. It’s a (mostly) guitar/bass/drums lineup providing stomping, trance-inducing rock beats against passionate lyrics sung in Indonesian.

De Dionyso is quite the showman, prancing the stage and declaring the vocals, showing off an impressive range from throat-singing growls to strong baritone wails. For one song, he wore an Indonesian mask and gestured robotically, like a sinister monkey god. And he did break out the bass clarinet for some distorted, guitar-like soloing.

A ragged, psychedelic attitude governed the music, but de Dionyso also sang with a reverence to the language and the text. (I don’t happen to speak Indonesian, but some of the lyrics on the band’s recent album are taken from William Blake or the Zohar.)

It’s an exhilarating band.  Don’t miss them.

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