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

Monday, May 26, 2014

Recording review - Atomga, Atomga (2014)

If you want a party, you need a crowd

These days, it's a stripped down DIY world. Electronic production and recording tools are cheap and ubiquitous, so it's easy for a person or two to create dense layers of complexity worthy of a studio full of musicians. Plenty of interesting work is produced by small groups like this, but oftentimes, the music lacks the spark and surprise that a larger band can bring to a shared moment. Music that favors larger ensembles, especially improvisational styles like Afrobeat, rely on cooperation to nurture an idea into vibrant life. The seed may be a simple melodic run or chord vamp, but the band takes the framework and negotiates how the song will develop. In Afrobeat, funk, jazz, and soul come together with African flair. Percussion and bass form the backbone, while horns, guitar, and keyboards add color and detail. In their live performances, Denver band Atomga does an excellent job of demonstrating how a larger group can coordinate on a piece and take it into surprising directions: the syncopated foundation shifts from congas to bells to snare and the horns turn the melody into a conversation. Sax player Frank Roddy has talked about simplified playing and the importance of leaving holes so the group can find their voice. Atomga uses this approach in combination with active listening to construct fairly intricate arrangements that adapt organically to the flow of the moment. While nothing can quite match the magic that happens on stage, their new, self-titled CD does capture that contradictory ideal where the band is tightly aligned but the tunes evolve loosely and naturally.

The album begins with a quick flourish before establishing a solid funk base. Vocalist Kendra Kreie launches into the conscious lyrics like a preacher rousing the congregation. The chorus warns, "Wake up!/They're building empires/ They're building on our backs." The progressive theme calls back to the socio-political criticism that has been at the core of Afrobeat since Nigerian Fela Kuti created the style, but the music animates the message. Each member of the band contributes a deceptively small piece to the overarching mix. The parts fall into repetition with minor variations, but they always leave enough space so they can interlock into a resilient chainmail of bouncing groove. The bass bubbles, the guitar ratchets a light call-and-response, and the organ just taps in the accents. The horns hang back but pull together after the chorus for a thick, droning set of punches. Even during the solos later in the tune, Atomga's horn section works as a team. After a spicy percussion interlude, Alekzandr Palesh leads off with an impressive trombone line. Leah Concialdi's baritone sax jumps in to overtake him but this becomes an exchange between the two instruments.

The following tracks show off the band's range. "Boneyard" slides into a darker, reggae influenced sound with a hot set of Latin horn solos. Then guitarist Casey Hrdlicka drifts into an expressive jazz-blues run. These stylistic shifts are based more on subtle coloring than heavily telegraphed change-ups. "Still Today" on the other hand stays in a jazzy space, with rolling triplets that propel the tune forward. The pensive rhythm is a bit like Dave Brubek's "Take Five" but Atomga uses it like a launching pad. The first solo features Tim Lee's trumpet taking a Miles Davis turn. He hands off to Hrdlicka, who starts out calmly enough, but he builds to a fiery climax of guitar shred. All the while, the rhythm section maintains their composure and the keys float dreamily. The eight and a half minute run time gives the tune plenty of room to stretch out.

"Still Today" turns up again at the end of the album in a remix by Craig Welsch. Welsch has worked with The Avett Brothers and a number of reggae bands like 10 Ft. Ganja Plant and John Brown's Body. His treatment here follows a dub style approach, giving the horns a rich echo and stripping the track down to its roots. The bass gets most of the love, along with the thoughtful Doors style keys. The percussion is still upbeat and active but Welsch locks onto the groove and emphasizes its hypnotic languor.

The only downside with Atomga is the all too brief running time. Even with the remix, the album's five pieces only fill about 33 minutes. By pop song standards, the six minute average track length is expansive, but Fela could lavish a half hour on a single track. On stage Atomga has no problem following his example, but it makes sense that they'd rein in these tunes on the CD: studio time is expensive and plenty of jam bands have proven that a long, meandering live cut can turn wooden without the crowd there to feed off of. While I'm a bit greedy and want to hear more, I'll settle for another time through the album to appreciate the hidden details I might have missed before.

Drop by their Bandcamp page to check out Atomga for yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment