Metal musicians have been calling out their jazz influences for decades now, but until recently (with the exception of John Zorn and his cohorts), this has been mostly a one-way street. In the last few years, though, we’ve seen some musicians such as Matt Hollenberg (Cleric, Simulacrum, John Frum) who can deftly maneuver between the two worlds and create jazz/metal hybrids like never before. Now, things have come full circle with drummer Dan Weiss’s Starebaby, an album that takes a substantial influence from the world of metal, along with a certain thematic resonance with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, and brings those influences into the jazz world.
That’s not to say there isn’t a little crossover among these players. Weiss was a member of avant-garde doom metal troupe Bloody Panda, but the majority of his discography resides firmly in the world of jazz and improv. Here, he’s joined by Trevor Dunn on bass, who has spent considerable time crossing boundaries with Zorn along with Fantômas, The Melvins, and Mr. Bungle, to name just a few. The rest of the top-notch band here hasn’t strayed so much into the metal world, but their resumes speak for themselves. Craig Taborn is a major force on keys with an epic jazz discography as both a leader and sideman. He is also joined on keys by the equally impressive Matt Mitchell, who has appeared with prog-rockers Thinking Plague and jazz giants such as Dave Douglas, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Tim Berne, among others. Finally, Ben Monder brings his guitar virtuosity on board, and from his work with Paul Motian to David Bowie and countless others, he is definitely in a class all his own.
Album opener “A Puncher’s Chance” sets the mood nicely, with Monder weaving complex guitar lines which would fit in nicely on any Ephel Duath album. If there is a direct relationship with metal here, it’s from the genre’s more obtuse periphery.
Starting with the second song, “Depredation,” and continuing on throughout the rest of the album, Weiss and company approach metal in even less direct ways. Each piece instead takes on a more noir-ish feel, albeit avoiding clichés like the requisite smoky saxophone melody. Instead, Mitchell and Taborn build layers of atmosphere one on top of another, while Weiss’s incredible drumming takes center stage. Monder sidesteps any direct metal riffing, but instead punctuates the tracks with slices of scorching lead work, a fascinating blend of atonal shred and skronk. Dunn holds everything together, bringing all these disparate elements together into cohesive compositions.
The metal influence creeps in unusually subtle ways. The aforementioned “Depredation” climaxes with the band eventually locking into a Meshuggah-inspired djent groove, a movement started on Weiss’s kick drum and slowly joined in by everyone but Monder, because that would be too obvious. Instead he shreds wildly over the ensemble, until he is left all alone, fading into obscure noise.
“Annice” starts off as a jazz piano composition that wouldn’t be out of place on ECM, but slowly transforms into a doom metal-inspired crawl, minus the tectonic waves of distortion. The effect though, is no less powerful. “Badalamenti,” a nod to David Lynch’s longtime soundtrack composer, takes all those signature, if somewhat saccharine theme songs and reworks them through what sounds like Arnold Schoenberg’s serial composition techniques.
On “Badalamenti,” “Cry Box” and album closer “Episode 8,” we can see how this group approximates “heavy,” using the tools and techniques at their disposal. Rather than kicking on the distortion pedals, they construct dense clusters of notes, compacted into rhythmic structures dictated by Weiss’s drums. The effect is every bit as claustrophobic as a death metal group firing on all cylinders, with the added bonus of the extreme contrast these sections have with the album’s unsettling and subdued sections.
The dialogue that is developing between the worlds of jazz and metal has found a powerful new voice. Starebaby is extremely impressive, both in concept and execution. By bringing such a focused importation of outside influences into the world of jazz, yet avoiding clichés at every turn, Dan Weiss and company construct an album that stands alone, an absolute masterpiece.
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