Smashing Humans is the debut album by Brooklyn-based violinist Sana Nagano, and also the name of the ensemble she has assembled to perform it. In addition to Nagano’s violin, the group consists of Peter Apfelbaum on saxophone, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass, and Joe Hertenstein on drums, and it’s obvious from the start that these players are quite familiar with each other.
The music on “Smashing Humans” is quite challenging, fluctuating between free improvisation and composition, often with multiple group members soloing simultaneously. Matsuno’s guitar has a gritty, distorted sound, while Nagano’s violin often has a complementary cutting quality, sometimes sounding like a guitar soloing in the upper register. Still, the mood is more playful punk rather than conveying a menacing aesthetic.
Album opener “Strings & Figures” broadcasts its complexities via an almost New Orleans-style second line march. Filiano’s bass and Hertenstein’s drums lead the way with a loose but deft swagger, somehow graceful but almost drunken. Matsuno dives in first with a burst of jagged noise and is soon joined by Apfelbaum who oscillates between Ayler- and Zorn-style caterwauling. When the guitar drops out, the violin steps in and takes its place. Soon all three are dancing intricately with one another and despite the music’s avant-garde nature, the atmosphere is ecstatic. The rhythm section eventually takes the lead and pulls their bandmates through an ever-increasingly complex beat architecture.
The group continues in this manner through much of the release. A beat is implied, but the drums and bass retreat quickly anytime they might get caught being too straightforward. Nevertheless, their work is damn near funky at times, subverted by the bombast of their compatriots. “Loud Dinner Wanted” will bring a smile to the face of the most hardened listener, joy brought on by a sense of awe. One can’t help but be enthralled by the maze-like structure of the tune and the ease which with the group maneuvers every twist and turn. There is an almost telepathic sense of communication within the band, each member moving independently but with great sympathy with one another.
“Humans in Grey” is inspired by fantasy author Michael Ende (The Neverending Story) and starts off sounding like a child practicing scales on their instrument. But this soon gives way to a raucous group improvisation, once again anchored by a head-nodding groove. Beware, though; the sudden shifts in beat are decidedly unexpected and could result in whiplash. Meanwhile, “Heavenly Evil Devil” constantly threatens to capsize and is surely the loosest improvisation on the record. But the group combines for the occasional thundering cadence, a point of reference that shows that they know exactly what they are doing, even if the listener is still looking for a foothold. Tellingly, perhaps embodying the spirit of Smashing Humans, the tune is inspired by the idea of the spiritual trickster, which as Nagano explains in the liner notes is “not really evil, but cute evil.”
The album ends on a surprisingly subdued note. “The Other Humans” is a drone-based piece, with the guitar leading the way through a quiet, if not strange reflection. The mood here would likely feel darker if not for all that came before it. The piece is quite gorgeous, even if does bring the proceedings to a close with a whimper rather than a bang.
Smashing Humans is a joy to listen to. The group performs at astonishing levels, but virtuosity never steals the show. It really feels like a huge bout of mischievous fun, a party being crashed by a kick-ass band ready to cut loose and throw caution to the wind. Hopefully, many will choose to join in on this strange celebration.
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