by Phil Freeman
A lot of interesting records came out this week. I picked three jazz albums and three metal albums out of the pile.
Black Breath, Sentenced to Life (Southern Lord)
Black Breath are a punk-metal quintet from Washington State whose wholly unoriginal sound combines the guitar tone of Entombed, Dismember, etc. with hardcore-influenced vocals somewhere between Converge and early Corrosion of Conformity. The production on this and their previous album, 2010′s Heavy Breathing, is what separates them from other, superficially similar retro outfits like Bloodbath or Death Breath. Kurt Ballou of Converge is an expert at shaping this sort of heavy but loose rock assault into something truly potent, and he keeps all the elements of Black Breath’s sound grimy yet utterly present. Nothing sinks into the morass, everything is audible and powerful. Not an easy task; even his own band fails at it sometimes. The songs may not be much more than a riff and a thundering beat, but they’re played with an energy that teeters between manic and exhausting. The only surprises come on the last track, “Obey,” which features a slow drum fade-in and some shockingly clean and capable guitar soloing reminiscent of early ’80s heavy metal (Accept, Scorpions, etc.). Sentenced to Life is firmly rooted in the glories of the past, but given the disappointing turn a lot of “extreme” metal has taken in recent years, it’s hard to blame Black Breath for wishing it was still the early ’90s.
General Surgery, A Collection of Depravation (Relapse)
Goregrind is funny. If you don’t think so, skip to the next review. A stripped-down, punky metal subgenre featuring lyrics fixated on violence, inappropriate medical procedures, and random strings of anatomical jargon, all laid over fast, downtuned riffs that owe as much to punk as metal, it’s utterly boneheaded. But the bands retain a keen sense of their own absurdity, which makes the whole thing fun where it could quite easily become tedious. General Surgery formed in the late ’80s, broke up in the early ’90s, and reformed a dozen years or so later. This CD gathers their EP and split releases, a few demos and some unreleased tracks, and packs 30 songs into just over an hour. If track titles like “Cauterization Frenzy,” “Necrodecontamination,” or “Viva! Blunt Force Trauma” don’t put a smile on your face, don’t even bother listening.
Jürgen Hagenlocher, Leap in the Dark (Intuition)
The latest CD by tenor saxophonist Jürgen Hagenlocher is a straightforward post-bop workout featuring some great players, including trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist David Kikoski (who plays electric piano on some tracks) and drummer Nate Smith. The drums are actually the one thing I don’t love about this record; they’re a little boom-bappish for my taste. But the compositions, all by Hagenlocher, have appealing melodies and plenty of supple groove. He’s a very smooth, almost smoky saxophonist, while Sipiagin’s trumpet and flugelhorn work has a sharpness that keeps things from becoming too soporific. At 66 minutes and change, the album is a bit too long, but it’s also so well played and so purely pleasurable that it’s hard to point to any of its eight tracks that should be cut. Leap in the Dark is exactly what modern mainstream post-bop should be. It swings, it’s got catchy tunes, and all the solos are creative and consistently interesting. A very highly recommended release.
Joel Harrison 7, Search (Sunnyside)
This is a unique album that slips between the cracks separating modern jazz from progressive rock; I could just as easily imagine it being reviewed in Relix as Jazz Times. Guitarist Joel Harrison has assembled a seven-piece band that includes tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist/organist Gary Versace, violinist Christian Howes, cellist Dana Leong, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Clarence Penn. The compositions he’s written for this group don’t really fixate on swinging; instead, they march forth boldly. The album opens with “Grass Valley and Beyond,” which makes me think of rippling fields of wheat under bright summer sun. The piano and strings dominate; Harrison’s barely playing, and McCaslin is an adornment, not a spotlit soloist, for the entire first half of the piece. Many of the pieces remind me of Frank Zappa‘s jazz-fusionish work, or even Magma, particularly when Howes takes the lead, as he often does. There’s also a unique arrangement of the Allman Brothers Band‘s “Whipping Post” that’s not at all smirking or ironic—Harrison just recognized a great melody and embraced it. One of the most fascinating records of the year so far.
Steve Lehman Trio, Dialect Flourescent (Pi)
Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman is highly regarded in New York jazz circles. Many critics and players (especially those who inhabit the artier, more intellectual corners of the avant-garde) love the guy. I haven’t been as convinced of his brilliance as some other people I know, but this CD has hit me differently than his previous work. Part of it, I think, is that he’s recording with just bass and drums as opposed to the octet heard on 2009′s Travail, Transformation and Flow. He’s also interpreting standards, including John Coltrane‘s “Moment’s Notice” and “Pure Imagination,” from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Entire albums of standards can be tiresome, but dropping a few into an album to contrast with the leader’s own compositions can be extremely pleasant. Here, the sequence goes Lehman track – standard – Lehman track – standard, four and four (plus a solo saxophone intro to the first piece, which gets its own track). Bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid do an excellent job of setting up throbbing, almost funky rhythms behind Lehman; they remind me of the JD Allen Trio at times. If you’ve never heard Steve Lehman before, Dialect Flourescent will make an excellent introduction to his work.
Meshuggah, Koloss (Nuclear Blast)
Meshuggah are pretty much Black Sabbath for Internet metal nerds. Their chugging, off-time riffs and complex, un-headbangable drum patterns have been the model for an entire woeful subgenre known as “djent.” Meshuggah’s own music varies in quality: their 2002-2005 hot streak (the album Nothing, the one-track, 22-minute I EP, and the album Catch Thirtythr33) is hard to argue with, but 2008′s obZen bore the pernicious influence of too much time spent hanging around with the members of Tool. Koloss is probably the most human-sounding Meshuggah album to date, but it’s still not the kind of thing your average headbanger listens to for pleasure on a regular basis. The band’s sound is all about simultaneity rather than unity. The three primary elements—guitars/bass, drums, and vocals—are each doing something completely separate from the others, and every once in a while they manage to lock in together for a brief moment, but not one that’ll be recognizable as a “chorus” or anything so pedestrian. The vocals are a harsh, flat bark; the guitars sound like bridge cables being struck with sledgehamemers; the drums require more mental counting than they inspire headbanging. This is intellectually rigorous calculator-metal, and while Koloss is Meshuggah at close to their best, they remain an alienating force.