Drummer Dan Weiss’s Starebaby emerged in 2018 with their self-titled debut album, a fascinating mixture of jazz and improv inspired by both the Twin Peaks universe and the bandmembers’ shared affinity for underground metal. The quintet — Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn on keyboards, Ben Monder on guitar, and Trevor Dunn on bass — has returned with a follow-up, Natural Selection, on Pi Recordings. The music, while somewhat similar to the debut, is also an expansion of their core sound. Yes, jazz, improv and metal still remain important influences, but a myriad of ideas feed into the music, and overall, the compositions are more than the sum of their parts.
The lineup is awe-inspiring in both talent and experience. Monder is one of the top guitarists on the scene right now, having put in time with a wide range of musicians, including David Bowie, Paul Motian, and Theo Bleckmann, among countless others. Taborn also has an extensive résumé, having worked with Tim Berne, Roscoe Mitchell and many others, and as a highly respected leader, while Mitchell is known for his time with Berne, Dave Douglas, and Darius Jones, among others. Dunn is well known for working with John Zorn, Mr. Bungle and the Melvins, making this project custom-suited to his unique talents. Finally, Weiss is an absolute drum virtuoso as fluent in traditional Indian percussion as jazz drumming, and has worked with Chris Potter, Bloody Panda, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and many more.
Starebaby doesn’t revel too much in the harshness of their metal influences, and in fact, there is much more to Natural Selection than just jazz and metal, although you wouldn’t know it from album opener “Episode 18,” which is some of the group’s most abrasive work to date. Clocking in at a hefty thirteen minutes, the song kicks off with a frantic bit of punk-thrash-jazz weirdness. Dunn and Monder rip out virtuoso lines, but primarily pick single notes rather than chords, which keeps the material from becoming just straight-up metal. This is followed by a doomy section, which eschews monolithic power chords in favor of more subtle voicings. Starebaby comes right up to the edge of metal and punk, but walks a tightrope in order to keep their identity singular.
The aforementioned doom section then devolves intriguingly into an electro-acoustic style bout of free improv, adding a layer of mystery to the tune. The doom riff returns for a moment but then maneuvers back into more obtuse improv. It would be impossible to track every twist and turn of this labyrinthine composition, but needless to say, the group covers an incredible amount of ground. This song alone feels like an EP’s worth of material, with plenty for a listener to chew over for a long time to come.
From there, the songs become even more varied. Weiss’s ensemble seems to mine Twin Peaks‘ more ominous yet subdued tones. “Dawn” sounds like it could have come from ECM’s catalog of understated yet powerful jazz, yet it eventually adopts a strange but almost post-rock feel. “The Long Diagonal” seems to evoke the kind of bizarre Rock in Opposition sounds of 5uu’s or Thinking Plague, a group with which Matt Mitchell has worked. Trevor Dunn’s bass work is the most metal element here, while the drums and piano swing. Monder’s guitar, though, takes center stage, working through any number of Robert Fripp-style melodic contortions, particularly on the next-to-last track, “Acinna.”
Perhaps the most direct nods towards Twin Peaks and David Lynch in general are the moments when the group evokes a more wistful and melancholy sound. Lynch’s longtime musical partner in crime, Angelo Badalamenti, occupied a strange niche in his soundtracks. He seemed to take the somewhat overly sentimental sound of late Eighties and early Nineties television and film music, and gloss it with a surreal feeling. Starebaby hits this point as well, whether through melodic piano passages or drawn-out synth work. “Today is Wednesday Tomorrow” in particular is fascinating, the keyboards sounding like they could have come off a vaporwave mixtape. The track then evolves into a strange, pointillistic bit of funk, a section much weirder than that description implies.
All in all, those expecting just a mashup of metal and jazz are in for a surprise. Natural Selection covers a lot of ground, and seems to create a genre all its own. Some passages are definitely composed, others improvised, and with some sections, the creative process is less obvious. Starebaby plays jazz and metal and soundtrack music and electronica and many other genres all at once, but also it seems like they are playing none of the above. Perhaps they are just playing Starebaby music, a genre of its own.