22 July 2010
THE ARGUMENT: In which a gauntlet is thrown down…
I have been planning a review of the new Frogg Café album, Bateless Edge, for a short bit now. It is a new album, Frogg Café is a well-known band on the East Coast live prog circuit, and it’s been 5 years since the band has released a studio album.
Then Andy Sussman tossed down the gauntlet. In a metaphorical sense, I mean…tho I would not put it past him to find a gauntlet to throw down. When I interviewed him as a precursor to this review, he offered up the following morsel:
“I’ll leave it alone with this: I haven’t read a review yet of Bateless Edge, good or bad, that makes me believe the reviewer spent any amount of time with the CD before putting the pen to the page. Have at it.”
To which I say to myself, ‘Self, Mr. Sussman has challenged you, I do believe.’ Thus I sit here, cracking my knuckles, ready to offer you my thoughts on Bateless Edge.
I’ll be doing this review a little differently than most; while it’s not uncommon at all for me to jump from track to track when I am writing up a review (i.e., reviewing non-linearly), this time I’ll be reviewing the album on a songwriter by songwriter basis. While you may think that this infers that the album offers up a lack of consistency dependent on who is writing the song being played, my hope is that instead it offers up evidence of the opposite; that no matter who is the main credited songwriter on the piece, the band’s strengths are always on display.
And so, the review:
PART THE FIRST - ANDY SUSSMAN:
Andy presents 2 tracks on Bateless Edge; the album opener, ‘Terra Sancta,’ and the 20-minute 3-part suite ‘Under Wuhu Son.’ The first part to bring up is regarding the subject matter of the second piece; as explained in the liner notes, Sussman based the song on two related things. The first is the book Wuhu Diary: On Taking My Adopted Daughter Back to her Home Town in China by Emily Prager. Attached to this are Sussman’s own experiences over a four year period trying to adopt a child from China, a situation that comes with its own happy ending, as his adopted daughter has been with them over seven months now.
Knowing this, the album opener ‘Terra Sancta’ takes on a bit more emotional intensity, even though there’s no attachment to Sussman’s other contribution to Bateless Edge. Intended as a dedication to children who lost their parents on 11 September 2001, it opens with quiet, phased sounding guitar or bass before horns, violin and pleasant, almost joyful vocal harmonies intone the opening lines. The marimba and violin synchronised lines are especially sweet, and not at all unexpected from a band that has such a long history of Zappa influence. The addition of some extensive eastern instrumentation (tabla, tambora, Indian slide guitar) give the piece a nice diversity of sound, and occasional use of ambient sounds (rain storms) add tension and early indicators that things aren’t as they seem. I have to say the that the harmonised vocals are actually somewhat odd when one considers some of the lyrics that Sussman’s provided:
‘Now that Terra Sancta’s laid its death wreath at your door…I will show you blood and tears that caused this look upon her face.’
‘Terra Sancta’ is intense without relying on heavy or fast instrumentation to try and create that intensity. Grooves develop slowly, tightly composed sections layer as the song gradually ascends to a final a capella vocal resolution.
‘Under Wuhu Son’ is Frogg Café in long form mode, something we generally don’t see an awful lot of. It may seem strange to say that, considering that all but one song on this album is in excess of 10 minutes (yes, I count ‘Under Wuhu Son’ as a single song despite the three separate track indexes), but for the most part, real long form Frogg Café material seems to come not very often at all. The first movement, ‘In The Bright Light,’ reminds me so much of the Beatles in some of the string arrangements (melodies that recall ‘She’s Leaving Home’ or pizzicato strings reminding of ‘Eleanor Rigby’), while some nice vocal harmonies hearken back to ‘Terra Sancta.’ Camiola lets loose with tasty guitar lines, while the overall band sound is fairly grandiose, playing locked in time with each other in an intense manner.
‘Left For Dead’ is the instrumental ‘middle 8,’ so to speak, and sees the band playing the hell out of a riff that verges on heavy metal. Atop this, the Lietos layer long, sustained horn notes, Ayasse plays some poignant violin, and somewhat jazzy organ battles for audible space. A minute and a half of this leads to a brief Western sounding interlude before we’re tossed back into that meat grinder riff, this time with marimba adding texture. If this is Frogg Café channeling the nuevo metal side of King Crimson circa 2000-2003, all I can say is keep doing it.
‘Under Wuhu Son’ wraps up with ‘Brace Against the Fall,’ a second vocal track with a shuffling, swinging jazz feel, warm trumpet or flugelhorn (I still have problems differentiating them…please don’t think ill of me for that admission). Sussman’s lyrics are again very poetic, and the vocal arrangements (mostly doubled or tripled vocal lines, with harmonies to match) are interesting and ear catching. Nick Lieto really sells the song lyrically, and the band really rises to the challenges of this suite from opening note to closing horn riff.
PART THE SECOND - NICK LIETO:
Nick Lieto (keys, trumpet, vocals) also contributes a pair of tracks to this release. The first of these is ‘Move Over I’m Driving,’ a sweet and jazzy instrumental that allows room for everyone to get an instrumental workout. Guarnieri’s drumming is rock solid, popping and snapping in the back while Sussman lays down some thick bass. One of the things I have always loved about Frogg Café is that they feature both horns and strings. Being that I am a sucker for sax and violins (I couldn’t resist…I’ll try harder in the future), getting both in one band is like going to the ice cream parlour on a hot day to find out that your two favourite flavours of ice cream are being given away free that day. The grooves are super deep here…no risk of things falling apart, and the band plays with enviable tightness. On an album where just about every song is over 10 minutes long, I admit that the 8 minute length of ‘Move Over I’m Driving’ seems like a single edit; I’d happily have taken another 8 minutes of this.
Nick’s second contribution is ‘From The Fence,’ a 12-minute piece of jazzy symphonic rock. Opening with grand towering chords, it moves into a quiet section with almost folky delivered vocals and lush horn charts. As I listen to Nick sing here, I am reminded so much of Chicago and Peter Cetera before he went all soft and power ballad-y mushy. Add in those wonderful horns and I bet there’d be times that you listening at home would think you’re listening to some great lost Chicago song from the second or third album (I am almost convinced that Chicago pre-the death of Terry Kath verged on being a prog band, but that’s perhaps a tale for another time). I can’t speak highly enough about this song; each successive FC album has seen Lieto’s offerings going from strength to strength, and this is possibly the strongest piece he’s ever contributed. When you look at past offerings (‘All This Time,’ ‘Creatures,’ ‘No Regrets,’ ‘You’re Still Sleeping’) that’s saying a hell of a lot.
And it may sound odd, but one of the things I love most about this song is how it almost doesn’t resolve at all. Frank Camiola gets the final say on ‘From the Fence,’ playing a guitar lead to fade, and as the rest of the band dies out in the mix, his instrument is the only one heard. It’s not until almost the last second that he bends that final note to resolve the chord and cadence, and that tension adds a nice bit of edge to the symphonics of the song.
PART THE THIRD - FRANK CAMIOLA:
Frank brings Frogg Café two incredibly dense instrumentals. I wonder if maybe that was part of the reason he came back. Maybe he had compromising pictures of the band as well; I’ll never find out. In any event, the first of these two pieces is the memorably titled ‘Pasta Fazeuhl.’ There’s no hiding who Camiola was thinking of when he conceived of this track, but thankfully his writing skills are great enough that this is the furthest thing from a straight up Magma/Christian Vander pastiche you could get. There are elements of the classic Magma sound, of course, scattered here and there where needed to maintain the theme. When the band locks into one of those tight drum/bass grooves that typify so much of the classic Magma catalogue, they ride it for all its worth. And when things shift away, moving from the more overt Magma elements to bring in bits of the Frogg Café sound, it becomes evident that these guys could do some serious damage to a few Magma tunes if they so chose to. Ayasse gets plenty of opportunities to show off some nice violin chops, and while xylophone and marimba seem more Zappa-esque than shades of Vander, it’s not as if those instrumental tones are totally alien to Zeuhl. The song is described in the liner notes as a tribute ‘not so much in the style of Magma per se, but rather in the spirit and energy that the band exudes,’ and I think that is more than a fair assessment. So many elements are merged together in this track, much like the ingredients of pasta e fagioli, the influence for the title.
Then there’s 'Belgian Boogie Board.'
Oh, how to describe this one?
If ‘From the Fence’ is the lost great Chicago song, then ‘Belgian Boogie Board’ is the Zappa classical piece that never was. Camiloa wrote the song originally for 2 clarinets and 2 bass guitars, and somehow that has transmogrified into this. The piece shifts through more moods than some babies go through diapers in a day. ‘Belgian Boogie Board’ is the kind of song that caused Frank to invent the term ‘statistical density.’ Odd percussive accents, snips of melody, strings flying out of every conceivable corner of the mix…I’ve heard this piece described as avant garde, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but for me I see and hear nothing more than a modern classical composition the likes of which would cause Frank Zappa (were he still alive) to raise one eyebrow and think two things simultaneously:
‘Who the hell are these guys ripping off my stuff?’
‘How the hell did they come up with this?’
I think he’d have loved it. I think he’d have admired the balls of a band willing to present something like this in this day and age. And in the hands of lesser musicians and a lesser band, this would have become a cacophonous mess of sound. I don’t doubt what the liner notes say, when they state that ‘the recording of this piece has given Bill (Ayasse) a headache at least twice…per hour.’ I can’t imagine seeing the score for this thing, even though I’d love to. I couldn’t imagine trying to play this live. It may end up being a studio creation only, but man, what a creation.
THE CONCLUSION, in which statements are made:
Having spent over 2,000 words to this point going over this album, the only things I can do to conclude are these:
1) Buy the damned album already.
2) If you’re not convinced by what I had to say, go listen to it for free at the 10T Records website.
3) Then, go back to number 1.
While it may be too early to make statements about top albums for 2010, right now Bateless Edge is sitting right near the top. We’ll see if anything comes along in the next few months that blows me away as much as this.
* Terra Sancta (12:10)
~ Move Over I’m Driving (7:59)
^ Pasta Fazeuhl (14:01)
Under Wuhu Son (total time 20:12):
* In The Bright Light (8:22)
* Left for Dead (5:36)
* Brace Against the Fall (6:14)
~ From the Fence (12:03)
^ Belgian Boogie Board (10:31)
* written by Andy Sussman
~ written by Nick Lieto
^ written by Frank Camiola
Bill Ayasse (violin, mandolin, vocals, hand percussion)
James Guarnieri (drums, glockenspiel, orchestral percussion)
Andrew Sussman (bass, cello, acoustic guitar)
Nick Lieto (lead vocals, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn)
John Lieto (trombone)
Frank Camiola (guitar, string bass, banjo)
Dennis Lippe (guitar)
Dee Harris (Indian slide guitar, tambora)
Nitim Mohan (tabla)
Vessele Stoyanova (marimba)
Michael Kollmer (marimba, xylophone)
Sharon Ayasse (flute)
Jon Preddice (cello)
Steven Sussman (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Steve Kastikas (keyboards)
Mike Kauffman (alto and tenor saxophones)