Metal-Jazz Done Right

Burning Ghosts play at the Hemlock Tavern (1131 Polk St., San Francisco) on Thursday, May 13. Openers include The Lake Millions, veterans of KZSU’s Day of Noise.

Burning GhostsReclamation (Tzadik, 2017)

burning-reclamationNot every moment of Reclamation as in-your-face as the promo video suggests, but Burning Ghosts‘ new album, released last Friday on Tzadik, does deliver on its claims of mixing metal with jazz.

Descriptions like that always leave me skeptical, since the mixing of any two genres tends to select the weakest tonics from either side, particularly the jazz. (That was especially true of jazz/hip-hop mashups, as I often discussed with KZSU DJ M-Smooth in the mid-2000s.)

But this mix works. Daniel Rosenboom‘s trumpet is at the center of the music, played in bright, crisp tones that very much signal “jazz.” On the metal side, it’s Jake Vossler and Richard Giddens swimming in the throttling smoke of guitar and bass, driven by Aaron McLendon on the drum kit.

Rosenboom has explored similar territory with the Los Angeles band DR. MiNT, mixing jazz horns and outer-limits guitar. He’s at home here, as you can hear on “FTOF,” a track that gets Reclamation off to a zooming start.

The opening of “Harbinger,” meanwhile, is a slow drag through thick brambles, leading to a shredding attack:

Rosenboom describes Burning Ghosts as an activist band, and you can hear traces of that in the dire urgency of “The War Machine” and the scorching grandeur of “Revolution.” There’s anger in here, but it’s packed with brainy and adept musicianship.

I get a jazzier vibe from the band’s 2016 Curve Line Space performances, with Tina Raymond on drums and Tim Lefebvre (of Donny McCaslin’s band) on bass. On Reclamation, Rosenboom and Vossler are more intent on going for the jugular, airing the band’s metal side. But don’t discount the jazzy moments like the bass-drums shuffle of “Gaslight” and even the light-touch rhythm section backing the guitar shredding on “Catalyst.”

It’s John Zorn’s Metal Band

John ZornIpsissimus (Tzadik, 2010)

Ipsissimus“John Zorn’s metal band” is not news to most of you, it’s true. But most of my delving into the Tzadik catalogue hasn’t been in the metal/Mike Patton vein, so I hadn’t encountered Moonchild until now.

Where Naked City’s Torture Garden was informed by speed-blasting punk, Moonchild is more about the weighty styles of contemporary metal. Ipsissimus, the latest of that band’s five albums, does indeed get heavy, and yet, it’s got references back to prog rock and even jazz that give me some grounding in the music. (UPDATE: See comments; it turns out the latest Moonchild album is Templars – In Sacred Blood, which has lyrics and adds John Medeski to the mix.)

Which is helpful, because metal tends to combine murk and hyperstimulation in a way that gets lost on me. “Warlock” and “The Book of Los” both provide a balm of prog-rock brightness, at least in spots. And the opener, “Seven Sigils,” flickers between a 4/4 and 15/16 time signature, I think — which, combined with the knowledge that nice-guy Joey Baron is on the drums, tickles my prog center nicely.

Later on that track, Zorn’s sax solo even hits some surprising moments of soul-jazz melody before getting into, you know, Zornisms.

Throughout the album, Trevor Dunn gets to crank out the low-end electric bass lines — I’m guessing he relishes the sessions where he gets to do that — and Marc Ribot’s guitar gets all crunchy in that choppy metal vein. I don’t mean blazing speed-metal, but heavy storm-of-doom stuff with Mike Patton providing the Cookie Monster vocals.

Tracks like “Supplicant” are where Zorn and especially Patton really bring the metal in midtempo, heavy-growl mode. Unexpectedly, Ribot chooses a classic-rock guitar sound for his subsequent solo. On a “metal” album that draws from so many other resources, it fits.

Language As an Open Box

Raskin and Harryman appear Weds., July 18, at the Outsound New Music Summit, and they’ve got a KFJC appearance Sunday night, July 15. Details below.

Jon Raskin and Carla HarrymanOpen Box (Tzadik, 2012)

For Open Box, Jon Raskin wrote music to frame the poems of Carla Harryman. It sounds artsy and serious, but the album starts with a sucker punch: the searing metal of electric guitars.

That track, “Fish Speech,” isn’t typical of the rest of the album, but it serves to upend your expectations, setting you up for a variety of music and moods.

You’d expect Raskin, the “R” in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, to back Harryman’s abstract word collages with equally abstract music, maybe something improvised or driven by a graphical score. And you’d be right — but he applies other ideas as well, putting to work different combinations of Bay Area and former Bay Area musicians in a total project that took three years to complete.

“Fish Speech” dangles sharp-edged guitar and bass over bleak verbal images of the nothingness before time. The words alternate between power and whimsy. (“There were no stories or bones … no lizards, pelicans, or fish.”) But the music sticks to the “power” side, conjuring an empty, chthonic universe — a “nothingness” that’s writhing and explosive, like the near-infinite heat in the microseconds following the Big Bang.

That piece gets an extra edge early on, when the vocals shift from Aurora Josephson’s silkiness to a harsher voice that I’m guessing is Roham Sheikhani. His accented, staggering voice arrives stern and biting: “Silence was neither dominant nor peaceful nor silent. There was no sound or smell.”

But the album spends longer stretches on improvised music — a suitable backing to the work of Carla Harryman, a teacher at Eastern Michigan University and Bard College whose work is categorized with avant-garde language poetry.

Harryman’s work is indirect, as you’d expect. We’ve all been exposed to that kind of poetry, but in listening to Open Box, I tried to pay particular attention to the words. Sometimes, I tried immersing myself in the language, the specific syntax; other times, I could let the words flow through my ears, like a kind of music, a language not intended for directly semantic interpretation.

The two-part title track is built of fragmented and purposefully incongruous phrases, like the framework of a framework, delivered in plain-fact style by Raskin and Harryman. Ideas appear in long expositions such as: “The psyche of the poet exceeds the poem without the poem disappearing into an exterior world in which the poem cannot survive / The poem is therefore a representation of an edge performed in other worlds, not this / Once /”

It’s during the closing minutes of Part 2 that Raskin and Harryman diverge, reaching completely separate parts simultaneously. Even with their voices reading calmly, the tension wells up quickly as their non-thematic lines shove one another out of the way. I found my ears hearing one, then the other, as if the words were two colors of ribbon spiraling in front of me. It’s a good effect, creating a coda without having to superficially punch up the music.

The music follows a similar path, free improvisation in small motions, like construction activity going on in the background: sparse, rattly sounds from percussion, guitar, and electronics, and the occasional sweetness of Raskin’s sax or, in Part 2, the crinkle of Liz Allbee’s trumpet.

I find myself being drawn back to “A Sun and Five Decompositions,” which somehow feels like more of a narrative flow, maybe because of the balletic and criss-crossing among the three speakers (Josephson, Sheikhani, and Harryman) and the music’s interplay with the words. Blips of sax, guitar, and percussion build and release tension in time with the moods of the intertwined spoken parts — three speakers calling-and-responding, sometimes repeating one another’s phrases or meeting in unison briefly. You get the sense of the voices having been orchestrated, a foreground scored to sit with the musical improvising.

It’s serious, and yet … there’s a passage where “Don’t be silly!” appears right after someone says “potato head.” Josephson does a particularly good job changing voices throughout the piece, ranging from poetic seriousness to flighty dingbat.

But I’d started off talking about variety: “JS Active Meme” closes the album with blistering guitars, a psychedelic sunburst. “Song for Asa” is an actual song, crooned by Aurora Josephson against long tones of sax, then it turns into a quietly bubbling improvisation, with small, popping vocalizations and crackling electronics sounds. The singing, coming up in the middle of the album is an odd sensation after an half our or so of spoken word.

Raskin and Harryman, will be participating in the “Sonic Poetry” night of the annual Outsound New Music Summit, on Weds., July 18 in San Francisco. Their set will include Gino Robair on piano.

And Harryman and Raskin will also be on KFJC-FM on Sunday, July 15, sometime between 8:00 p.m and 10:00 p.m., to discuss their collaboration.  Details on Facebook.

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.

Good For Cows: The Metal Side

Good for CowsAudumla (Web of Mimicry, 2010)
Lucifer the Lightbearer [a.k.a. Devin Hoff] — Lucifer the Lightbearer (self-released, 2010)

Wait, that sounds like something electric.  Wait, that’s a keyboard. Wait, now some guy screaming -?

If you’ve wondered how many albums Good For Cows could squeeze out of the acoustic bass/drums format, you’ll want to give this a listen. After years of stripped-down instrumental pop (usually filed in the jazz bins), the duo has downshifted into a slow-blaze kind of metal, with gravity-well electric bass (deployed like a fuzzy lead guitar, really) and deliberate, icy-stare drums. Within a few notes of Audumla, the black-on-black album cover makes sense.

It’s a new voice that doesn’t necessarily accommodate their prior approach to writing. “Fafnir” recalls Good For Cows’ earlier pop, albeit done up in fuzzy aggression. But that somehow seems to call attention to the song’s slow pace; it feels incomplete (but redeems itself with an awesome bass/drums double-soloing stretch).  Other tracks feel more like they’re written with the grinding heat of metal in mind — “Lenore,” for instance, uses a snappy midtempo bass riff to set up a mood of power and dread, later popping into a stomping hard rhythm. That’s more like it.

“Invisible Goth” rocks out with a hammering beat and some ringing, guitar-like electronics triggered by Ches Smith‘s drums. The extra sound adds a nice dimension. But my favorite on the album is probably “Solfell (Mountains on the Sun),” where Devin Hoff adds some noodling prog-rock bass patches and Smith gets a spacey electronics break.

Now, if I’d actually known something about Hoff and Smith, Audumla might not have surprised me. It turns out Hoff has an “undying love for metal,” which is how he explains his newest solo project, Lucifer the Lightbearer.

It’s a solo excursion into multiple basses and vocals, creating heavy, dark landscapes (as if the album art, at right, wasn’t clue enough). “The Fallen” opens the album with a heavy, slow chanting of electric bass, eventually adding a treble voice in the form of bass played with (I think) the edge of the bow, for a springy and — in the literal sense — metallic squealing.

The album starts to really rock out with “Son of the Morning,” which stacks up a sinister chiming electric bass with grimaced vocals done in an oversaturated whisper/groan, followed by squealy bass-guitar soloing. Overall, Lucifer is heavier than Audumla and doesn’t have the latter’s pop roots. It’s a fascinating little world of evil, built by Hoff in shimmering layers.

The album wraps up with the acoustic “Light Bearer,” a peaceful and even mournful ending, perhaps showing — I can’t believe I’m about to type this — some sympathy for the devil.

Lucifer the Lightbearer is being released by Hoff on Bandcamp on a name-your-price basis — find it here. You can also find his other solo works there; be sure to check out The Redressers.

Hoff is in the process of putting Good For Cows’ older albums on Bandcamp as well — follow this link. Or, you could also see if Mike at Asian Man Records has any more copies of Good For Cows’ Bebop Fantasy CD.

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.