(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, August 17, 2015

A personal note about connection

When I started writing this blog six and a half years ago, it was really just a way to capture the concerts and albums I was enjoying. What started out as fairly brief write-ups blossomed into longer explorations and a huge influx of new music into my iPod.  Eventually, I branched out into playlists and interviews, most creatively with my Mash Up Summit. Over time, I started receiving lots of music submissions that helped me discover a host of great artists whose music has moved me. Many of these people are not as widely known as they deserve or they weren't when I first came across them: Macklemore, Matt Stevens, Team Spirit, Atomga, That 1 Guy, Bike for Three!, Earl Greyhound... there are more than I can count.

Looking back on this run, I am proud of how I've grown as a writer. That said, this blog grew into a second, unpaid job. To be fair, this has really just been a hobby and I've been well aware that there's not any money in this kind of writing. But I've come to ask myself, what do I want to get out of this, beyond the satisfaction of polishing an 800 word essay? Ultimately, I don't think it's money or fame,but engagement. Connecting with fellow music fans and artists would close the loop for me and make it less of a solitary activity. And there are a few musicians that have been responsive, but the truth is that most of my readers are just finding me by when they google some group or album. They drop in, skim my post, and move on. At this point, I get a little over 1000 hits per month and around zero comments. I don't think that's a flaw with me or my readers; it's just the nature of review blogs and the internet.

I want to find a way to forge a connection with people and I'm not convinced that being a critic is the best answer. Other forms of writing may provide a path or I may focus on sharing my own music. In any case, I'm not shutting down Jester Jay Music, but I probably won't be posting music reviews on a regular basis.

Thanks to all of the creative people who have shared their work with me, to David Harris for letting me write and edit for Spectrum Culture, and to the friendly PR people I've met over the years.

Feel free to respond to this with a comment or message, but I'll understand if you don't : -) Cheers!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Recording review - The Fierce and the Dead, Magnet

The total package of physical and mental gymnastics

4.0/5.0

One of the things I love about Matt Steven's music is that he doesn't just alternate between visceral guitar expression and intellectually satisfying geometric balance. Instead, he blends them together into a spicy melange that milks excitement and intensity from that dichotomy. Even in a short 1:41 piece like "Magnet in Your Face", he can find the space to surprise. That tune jump starts The Fierce and the Dead’s Magnet EP with a furious assault of thick, head-banging guitar. The simple thrashy vamp sinks straight into your reptile brain like some kind of insistent, metal-flaked drug. While the rhythm obsessively circles this compelling focal point, the lead comes in and prods the song forward with an angular pentatonic line. The song is a third of the way into its brief run and if it were any other band, that Neanderthal DNA would make the song as predictable as a simple mathematical series. Sure enough, the one-two of the opening leads to the obvious three of a slightly introspective bridge, but then that bridge melts away, leaving a clean, disarming interlude that suggests fractal reflections with a playful bounce. While the tune does settle back into the adrenal punch of the main riff, that post-rock side trip colors the rest of the song. It makes you wonder how far afield the band would take it if they gave themselves the luxury of five or six minutes to develop it further.

The following track, ''Palm Trees", takes the opposite tack, starting with a crystalline guitar that feels like a Cubist sketch: a static scene visualized from different angles. But Kevin Feazy's throbbing bass joins in and triggers more rambunctious play. Relatively soon, though, the two approaches reach a detente of coexistence , each complementing the other. The song still has some tricks though, with a final Gothic crescendo that collapses into the chaotic echoes of a hornets nest.

Magnet gets off to a strong start with these two new pieces, but the band also mixes in a retrospective set of tunes. Two of these are rehearsal recordings of songs from their last release, Spooky Action (review): "Let's Start a Cult" and the title track. It's not immediately clear whether these were demos or if the band was working out how to perform them live. I'd guess the latter because the arrangements seem fairly clearly planned out. Neither of these enjoy the sweet production of the album versions, but the Stuart Marshall's drumming is expressive and vibrant, and each gives a sense of how TFatD's songs are built from sections to form a coherent whole.

They round out the reissued tunes with a version of "Flint", originally from 2011's If It Carries on Like This We Are Moving to Morecambe (review). This take is more focused, dropping the original's extended space echo intro. Without that trippy start or the edgier production choices, Magnet's version shifts the perspective from a tentative search for solid ground that grows in confidence to one that starts with a clearer sense of self-possession and hidden resources. That feels right because it reflects how much TFatD have evolved.

EPs are usually stopgap moves to tide fans over between meatier releases, seldom turning out to be essential listening, but between the solid new material and the revisited songs, Magnet is a good snapshot of TFatD's development as well as their enduring talent. They cram a lot into 20 minutes and it's a treat to bask in that yin yang of delicate crunch, of distorted introspection, of The Fierce and the Dead.

Magnet is available from the group's Bandcamp page.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Recording review - Atomga, Black Belt (2015)

Razor sharp arrangements that find balance between the booty and the brain

4.0/5.0

The sad truth is that studio tricks have leveled the playing field between barely capable musical clods and their more talented competition. A good engineer can make almost any band sound tight, with every pitch perfect note placed precisely on beat. That kind of work, though, leaves its fingerprints on the music. But listening to the interwoven horn parts and the hand-in-glove coordination between the bass and drums on Atomga’s full-length release, Black Belt, it’s clear that the recording engineers didn’t have sweeten these tracks; they just needed to capture the tightest of takes and focus on the mix. Their top-notch production brought the clarity to showcase everyone’s talent. Atomga has such a strong team ear for the groove that, even as they push themselves technically, the album never turns into a parade of egos. Instead, the album is packed with quiet epiphanies where you notice just how spot-on a particular part is.

Black Belt starts out appropriately enough with a brief musical kata that lets Atomga show off their Afrobeat form. Compared to any of Fela Kuti’s tracks, the instrumental “Salt and Pepper” is quite abbreviated, but it demonstrates the tight horn arrangements that the band is known for. The song starts out with a call and response between the horns and Casey Hrdlicka’s guitar exclamation points, but the verse changes gears and pits Alice Hansen’s trumpet against Frank Roddy’s and Leah Concialdi’s saxes. Then the tune takes it even higher with Concialdi locking into a hypnotic baritone sax riff that Hansen surfs cleanly over.

That introduction sets up a strong start to the album, where each track raises the bar. The second song, “Sly Devil”, is quite a bit moodier than the opener, with reggae and Latin influences creeping in. A simple guitar loop begins the tune, but it’s really all about the drums and percussion; they’re locked into the beat, but they never settle for simple repetition. The bass fits right in: relatively busy, but steady on. The horns contrast with the rhythmic complexity by holding longer tones -- the raspy caress of baritone sax is just about perfect. Kendra Kreie’s vocal is soulful and warm, even as her knowing tone makes it clear that she’s not buying the sly devil’s line. Peter Mouser’s organ solo is another treat as it slips into a beautifully retro Ray Manzarek style jam, reminiscent of the middle section of “Riders on the Storm”.

If “Sly Devil” is laid back with a bit of weary cynicism, my favorite track, “Cressidation”, is altogether heavier with powerful soul-gospel roots. Right from the start it’s more insistent, taking an anxious edge from the crisp, funky guitar chords, but the horns soften some of that tension. Concialdi swaggers through her solo with braggadocio, as if reassuring the nervous guitar. At first, Kreie's relaxed vocal seems a bit disengaged, but by the chorus, she picks up a righteous tone that closes the energy gap. Hrdlicka's jazzy solo is exquisitely phrased and I love how he plays just outside the lines. That sets up a dreamy interlude, where Samual Lafalce takes a richly melodic turn on bass before dropping some speedy funk runs. Hrlicka responds with a more aggressive second shot that ushers in the soulful chorus to take it home.

The rest of Black Belt carries on following the basic Afrobeat aesthetic that balances between the booty and brain. The feel-good music is danceable and blurs the lines between funk and jazz, but it’s also the medium for the songs’ socially conscious messages. Tracks like “Alaskan Pipeline” take advantage of that to provide cultural commentary, but the grooves defuse any risk of a hectoring tone.

If Black Belt has a flaw at all, it's that the clean production and razor sharp arrangements are almost too perfect. Not because of studio sleight of hand -- the songs are quite lively -- but more because the flow of smooth takes encourages the listener to take it all for granted. Without the risk of failure, the album misses some of the magical chaos that the band often finds onstage. Still, it’s a rare studio that can capture that kind of lightning. All in all, it's a fair trade.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Recording review, Ozric Tentacles, Technicians of the Sacred (2015)

Contemplate the infinite through electronica and progressive guitar shred

4.5/5.0

It’s a short attention span musical world,where the emphasis is usually on tight pop expressions. But while mere gestures are enough to satisfy most consumers, there are still some genres that need the maneuvering room of a full album to develop their ideas. In the four years since Paper Monkeys came out, space rock stalwarts Ozric Tentacles apparently had so many inviting trails to explore that even that was too confining . Their latest release, Technicians of the Sacred, sprawls out over two full CDs. Despite the obvious excess, there's not much in the way of fluff: while the songs take their time to find their target trancelike moods, they never fall into monotony. Longtime fans will find plenty of familiar ground, but the emphasis is on electronica punctuated by Ed Wynn’s shred-tastic guitar.

Disc 1 leads off with “The High Pass”, which takes an eight and a half minute nomadic trek through many of the sonic environments that the Ozrics enjoy the most: underwater dives, expansive vistas, evocative action zones, and spelunking trips deep down into the heart of the machine. The dynamic flow accommodates both incremental transitions and freefall plunges that reset the context. The tune wanders from chill electronic grooves to mind-warpingly intense prog-rock guitar, but the anxious rhythm and pensive funk bass line remain more or less constant. The restless electro energy may form the foundation, but there are plenty of distractions that provide ear-catching details that vie for the listener's attention, from blooming synth melodies that shift and grow to a robotic interlude that would be perfect for popping.

The music that follows could be soundtrack excerpts from a randomized set of dreamscapes. The Krautrock infused “Far Memory” seems fit for an underwater world, full of echo and frequency shifted shimmers, while the electro-pop “Changa Masala” has an infectious syncopated rhythm that suggests sleepwalking through a Bollywood set as it melts away into space. The imagination can run wild in these intriguing snow-globe worlds. The band dives into each with enthusiasm and little worry for how the songs might evolve. So a cheery electronic piece like “Zingbong” might start with an uptempo New Age feel, propelled by a busy gamelan synth run and terse bass line, but the Ozrics are content to let a Zappa-esque guitar periodically warp the piece into an off-kilter jumble, knowing that they can always nonchalantly slip back into the clarity of the main riff.

The second half of the album gives freer rein to the band’s progressive rock side, with plenty of energetic guitar mutation and distortion. This disc begins with my favorite track on the album, “Epiphlioy”. The Beats Antique style world-tronica groove is built on a galloping Middle Eastern dervish rhythm that’s intricately tied to a synthesized sonic palette. Like the evocative pieces on the first CD, the song suggests a series of images: a tense chase with an undercurrent of excitement, a visit to a nomadic camp in the desert, a spaced-out psychedelic trip in the middle of an oasis. It’s easy to get lost in the drawn out narrative of the piece, but the exotic tone, along with the touchstone rhythm guitar part, provide grounding enough for the extensive 12 minute sojourn.

By the time we reach the final cut, “Zenlike Creature”, it’s been a long disorienting trip. We’re ready for the centering focus of looped interlocking patterns, but even here, the meditative flow gives way to a more progressive groove. The track see-saws from thoughtful to assertive, eventually picking up an Alan Parsons style momentum. Despite the dynamic give and take, though, there is still a kind of imperturbability at the root of the song. It's as though the band is saying, "Ignore the illusion (māyā) and just settle into the moment." The macrocosm of Technicians of the Sacred reflects this message as well. It never delivers a clear mythology or answers. Instead, it just offers a hypnotic zone to contemplate the infinite. Or not, as you see fit.