The Metal in Edmund Welles

Edmund WellesImagination Lost (Zeroth Law, 2011)

To my ear, the metal influences in Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet, have been more foundational than foreground. For example, as ominous as the core riff sounds on “Watch Me Die,” on Imagination Lost, it has a catchy and even jazzy element to it, and the higher-registered melody above it tickles my jazz/prog center more than my metal center. It’s probably just the way my memory associates bass clarinet with jazz.

Imagination Lost makes the metal influence clear. The opening “Moira the Warrior” is one of their most ominous tracks to date. Not just dark, but more looming, and when the drums suddenly and surprisingly kick in — a guest appearance for what’s normally a bass clarinet quartet — the metal takes over, and it grabs hold for much of the album.

If you don’t already know: Edmund Welles is the creation of Cornelius Boots, who’s a serious student of metal but also a disciple of classical and free jazz. His compositions for the bass clarinet quartet deftly mix the three influences, creating songs that can dart and fly like jazz while also rocking you like, well, rock. The heaviness of metal has always been there, drawn by the low, low basslines of bass clarinets doubled- or tripled-up, but the music doesn’t alienate jazz fans. (See “Chamber Demons and Prankster Gods.”)

In fact, the songs often come across brightly and even flash a sense of humor. The band’s signature tune for years was their cover of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” Imagination Lost adds its own goofy touch with “At the Soda Shop,” a doo-wop tune with an ending that lets you know they’re not serious.

Most of the album presents a heavier mood, though. “When I Woke Up, Everyone Was Gone” is grand and fatalistic. “Moira” and the closing track, “Curtains,” have a processional feel, as if a dark ritual is taking place. The centerpiece is a tight, faithful cover of Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” with Gene Jun on vocals. (And Gene’s got pipes. Man.)

This is only the band’s third full-length album, but they’ve been around for 15 years, so it’s not surprising that Boots chose to mix up the format a little — drums on two tracks, Jun’s vocal guesting.

I do miss some of the crazier, breakneck jazz pieces that dot Edmund Welles’ catalog. That element doesn’t seem as prominent on Imagination Lost. But it’s still a solid, varied album showing off some high-caliber musicianship. (Another track to note: “Separating Sanity,” which feels like a classic rock song, down to the voice-like lead and the bluesy touches, but it’s an original.)

Edmund Welles is a band that works hard for its results, and hopefully this album can give them the expanded audience they deserve. You can find it at CD Baby and Bandcamp.

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