Classic Album of the Week: Bark Psychosis-Hex

Hex is one of those accidental–and perhaps impractical–masterpieces.  From the use of a church’s natural reverb to drench the heavy dose of electronic sampling to the various guest appearances, including trumpets, string quartets, and tamboura, Bark Psychosis crafted a painstaking work impossible to recreate on a night by night basis–especially considering the domineering nature of guitarist Graham Sutton that gradually kicked out the rest of the band. Nonetheless, the work survives to this day as one of the most important re-calibrations of the rock aesthetic of the past 30 years.

Sutton spent a great deal of time playing with different sounds leading up to the Hex sessions.  The Loom is perhaps the most akin to typical rock song forms, but the long hand-drum sounding groove at its center is encapsulated by these aquatic drone sounds before crunchy sampling eventually kills any possibility of a chorus.  The longest track, Pendulum Man, contrasts bass noodling and distant guitar cries with a glorious crystal of electronics that swells blissfully, stringing the listener along for 10 minutes.

The beauty of Hex takes a deep listen to garner, but the big moments on the record are certainly breathtaking.  Eyes & Smiles digs in more than most tracks with battling trumpets, whereas Absent Friends’ high pulsing guitar melodies and screaming drones hypnotize for the whole second half of the track.

Hex was almost sacrificial in the end.  Bark Psychosis didn’t survive to make a handful of records and their touring history is minimal, but their fingerprint is all over the post-rock that followed (the term was coined in Simon Reynolds’ review after all).  While everyone in Seattle at the time was trying to distortion their way back to 1974, Bark Psychosis stood far out in left field trying to figure out how to wrangle every sound they could think of into the next era of rock.


Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples.  By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.

“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes.  First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects.  Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.

This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment.  Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me.  It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.

The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space.  “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie.  It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar.  Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached.  It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.

“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace.  The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies.  This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record.  It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.

Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances.  When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona.  Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.

AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album.  Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work.  Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting.  I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.

-Donovan Burtan


The Avalanches-Wildflower_First Impressions

The Avalanches bring a particularly bright aesthetic to the DJ/producer idiom on their new album Wildflower.  Vivid samples loop and sing with a vast collection of features bringing the album through a series of stylistic shifts.  The group succeeds at creating heavy, banging beats that stand-out from the genres of trap and EDM that currently dominate the club scene, however, the dense sampling occasionally makes the beat a bit over-indulged in bright sound leaving little room for subtlety.

With colorful single “Frankie Sinatra” coming early on the album, the group first explores quick-hitting pop tunes with catchy vocals.  The hook  from”Subway,” gradually disappears into the looping vocal melody on “Going Home.”  After this, Toro y Moi’s signature vocal sound joins a jolting electronic beat with textural percussion for “If I was a Folkstar.”  In the middle of the album, the band takes a turn for the theatrical, almost sounding like a cartoon on “Zap” and “The Noisy Eater,” before riding out on a bunch of quick-hitting ethereal tunes.

Although the group mostly thrives on samples from dance-genres, they manage to logically mesh together a wide ranging pool of different sounds.  “Frankie Sinatra’s” retro groove state juxtaposes the psychedelic ideology of “Colours” with maximalist attacks on the senses coming in the middle of the album.  Also, the contrast presented between the rap features and the bright melodies brings an interesting, not-often-heard sound to the rap world.

Each track relies more on the main sample than the rhythmic foundation, which presents extreme pros and cons.  When considering the music of someone like DJ Shadow, the focus is placed entirely on percussion.  Here, the beat seems to follow each sample.  Obviously neither idea is perfect, however, Avalanches could afford to leave the constantly evolving samples at the way-side for breaths of quiet with emphasis placed on the beat.  Occasionally, the evolving samples and pulsing just become overbearing and obnoxious.

Overall, Wildflower has a lot of give and take.  The huge, layered beats serve as a fun listening experience when striving for a singable pop hit, but the album often feels a bit jumbled with excessively cartoony sound ideas.