As I stood tonight in Fat Cat, a seedy West Village jazz club that might be described as a Dazed and Confused den of slack with postmillennial Village Vanguard aspirations, I wondered if, 13 years ago, I might have been one of those 20-somethings who sprawled on couches and lounge chairs, feeling vaguely contemptuous toward the nearly-40s who more clearly felt discomfort at the vaguely stifling setting. Probably, I surmised, that was just a romanticized view of my younger years; it likely would have chafed just as much back then.
Still, it was worth spending an hour and change in a cavern that made the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street seem posh by comparison in order to catch tonight's opening set by the reunited Human Feel, a quartet that made some remarkable music during the first half of the '90s before dispersing in mostly different directions.
My preview in last week's issue of TONY provides a concise background for this group, which over the course of four albums rose from a handful of gifted and promising upstarts to a quartet of original thinkers with distinctive voices. To hear reedists Andrew D'Angelo and Chris Speed, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummer Jim Black play together again seemed unlikely at best, so far apart had their visions seemed to have grown by the band's dissolution in 1996. Speed and Black, whose then-concurrent tenure in saxophonist Tim Berne's epochal Bloodcount expired around the same time, continued to work in one another's bands as well as the Balkan-improv quartet Pachora. Rosenwinkel emerged as a post-bop bandleader with nascent hip-hop proclivities; D'Angelo swung with drummer Matt Wilson's quartet while experimenting elsewhere, and guested on Rosenwinkel's Heartcore, a 2003 release that presented a startlingly individual take on jazztronica.
But Human Feel had always been a band that thrived on musical clashes even at its peak, so there was no reason to suspect that the quartet's return would be anything but assured -- and perhaps even more colorful for all the territory the players had mapped since their premature farewell. And indeed, tonight's first set recaptured the livid sputter of the band's peak. Midway through the five-tune set, D'Angelo stated that Human Feel was playing a mix of old and new material; without a score card to double-check my reflexes, I can only suggest that the first and last pieces in the set could have been catalog items -- or at least spoke the same language -- while the middle trilogy marked new territory.
The signal addition to the mix, evident from the beginning, was Black's manipulation of electronics. As Speed's clarinet and D'Angelo's bass clarinet sang long tones over Rosenwinkel's fluttering strings (often doubled by his wordless vocalizing), Black filled an even lower depth of the band's sonic range with an organlike rumble that might well have been D'Angelo's own horn sampled live. Exploding into one of his trademark dry, frenetic avant-funk beats, Black drove D'Angelo's searing alto sax while Speed drilled holes in the floor. A heavy-metal plod led to a sudden release.
Black has fruitfully explored laptop electronics with his own band, Alas No Axis, and brought that more recently acquired facility to the second composition in tonight's set, which opened with Speed's clarinet plaintively navigating an aural hall of mirrors. A queasy melody shimmered and dispersed like a patch of oil spreading across the surface of a pond; when D'Angelo and Rosenwinkel locked into a raging duo passage, Black filled the remaining space with electronic swishes and slurps like Eno in early Roxy Music or Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu. Abruptly, the horns snapped into a surging line paced by Black's elusive pulse and Rosenwinkel's unperturbable cool.
The third selection, a D'Angelo tune, opened with a knotted head characteristic of this band, followed by a darting, squalling alto solo over Black's action-painted tumult. A collectively improvised passage that followed might best be described by the title of an earlier Speed composition, "Scribble Bliss," until Black's ponderous beat threatened an eruption of full-blown pomp; eventually, the whorl of furious activity passed like a hurricane petering out over land.
The solo guitar lines that opened Rosenwinkel's "Serenade" presented the evening's closest approximation of a standard jazz chord sequence, albeit an oblique one. It was hard to tell whether whiny sine-wave intrusions were contributed by Black or merely feedback in the sound system; less ambiguous were electronic samples that might well have been captured from Rosenwinkel on the fly, deployed behind and then replacing a stately theme on bass clarinet and tenor saxophone.
Closing the set was another tune built on angular unison lines; Rosenwinkel initially sat out as D'Angelo and Speed raced over a drum line so abtrusely animated as to suggests James Brown's funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield somehow possessed by Bill Bruford's passionate will to disrupt. I can think of no other drummer who can maintain so solid a pocket while running completely roughshod over barlines, nor one with a more sophisticated command of timbre using the basic resources of a standard drum kit. An airy, ungrounded collective blow on tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, pealing guitar and bowed cymbals maintained a dreamlike state of bliss for what felt like endless moments, only to be sundered by D'Angelo's most elephantine blowing. Thick, reverberent guitar lines tangled with Black's unhinged beat... and just like that, the set was over.
In the aftermath, my desire to hear more wrestled with my equally potent wish to escape the uncomfortable setting; in the end, the clock was the deciding factor. (Even officially sanctioned night owls have to maintain office hours.) Part of me wished that I'd changed course on Sunday night and heard Human Feel's earlier show at Tonic.
But that would have meant skipping a show by Napalm Death, the extreme-metal band that speaks to liberal rage like no other. A proud product of Margaret Thatcher's England, this Birmingham-fledged powerhouse has spoken truth to power for nearly two decades. Perhaps not surprisingly, an experimental patch-slash-identity crisis more or less coincided with the Clinton years. But now, with another Bush in office, Napalm Death has regained its footing; its two most recent albums (not counting a covers disc and a best-of anthology) can easily be counted among the band's strongest efforts.
Despite a lineup that doesn't contain a single member from the two separate lineups that recorded one side apiece of Scum, Napalm Death's 1987 debut album, the current combination of vocalist Mark "Barney" Greenway, guitarist Mitch Harris, bassist Shane Embury and drummer Danny Herrera is easily as potent and explosive a group to ever bear the name. To flog an old cliché, if the sheer energy Greenway expends stalking and shuddering onstage could somehow be harnessed and tapped, the world's dependency on fossil fuels could be eliminated overnight. His pleasantly Brummie between-song patter renders still more unbelievable the sheer intensity of his chthonic roar.
Despite a somewhat unhappy sound mix -- about which Herrera could be seen to complain throughout the set, and which robbed my all-time favorite ND song, "The World Keeps Turning" of its gale-force majesty -- Napalm Death delivered a tight set that touched on virtually every stage of the band's history, from early, seconds-long blurts through complex death-metal anthems and back to its most recent grindcore urgency. Harris's lacerating riffs and parched screeches delivered into an overhead microphone, Embury's elemental rumble and Herrera's inhuman blastbeats combined with awe-inspiring precision and power.
The headlining act, veteran German thrash band Kreator, demonstated a similar timeliness that can be chalked up to a thrash resurgence arguably fuelled by the same political unrest that called Napalm Death back to the frontlines. New songs from last year's impressive Enemy of God, including the title track, "Impossible Brutality" and "Suicide Terrorist," sat well next to old standards such as "Extreme Aggression," "Pleasure to Kill" and "Terrible Certainty."
Kreator's music, like that of Slayer, its closest American kin, sticks to a limited vein and mines it well. And like Slayer, Kreator went through an experimental phase that tilted slightly toward the hip-hop inspired grooves of nu-metal, eventually to right itself with the more sophisticated artillery it originally bore. With a lineup that couples original guitarist/vocalist Mille Petrozza and drummer Jurgen "Ventor" Reil with impressive additions in second guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö and bassist Christian Geisler, a technically sophisticated style just feels more honest, anyway. Swathed in strobing lights and billowing dry-ice smoke, Kreator's set was executed with utter professionalism, although one could argue that only during the extremely early songs it performed during the encore ("Flag of Hate" and "Tormentor") did the band sound as feral and hungry as it always did during its original heyday.
Of the bands that preceded Napalm Death's support slot, Montreal-based quintet A Perfect Murder delivered a brief, well-paced set of groove-oriented thrash tunes blatantly beholden to Pantera and Exhorder, even with a fill-in singer and one of two guitarists sidelined by technical malfunctions. Opening act Undying, from Raleigh, North Carolina, offered up the metalcore quota of the bill with a twist in vocalist Logan White, a slim young woman whose voice was largely rendered an indistinct yelp. She stalked the stage like a caged cat, punctuating choruses with the sweeping karate chops and kicks of a latter-day hardcore kid in the pit, but only managed to express the band's agenda in between-song references to veganism, animal rights and tolerance -- y'know, the sort of thing of which metalheads are widely assumed to be unaware.
Oh, bugger... it's snowing. Time to set the alarm clock an hour earlier to allow for shoveling.
Napalm Death setlist: Instinct of Survival / Unchallenged Hate / Instruments of Persuasion / Continuing War on Stupidity / Narcoleptic / Taste the Poison / Next on the List / Vegetative State / Suffer the Children / Breed to Breathe / The Code Is Red... Long Live the Code / Lowlife / Silence Is Deafening / Right You Are / Diplomatic Immuinty / The World Keeps Turning / The Great and the Good / Scum / Life / The Kill / Deceiver / You Suffer / Nazi Punks Fu(# Off / Siege of Power
Chris Speed - Swell Henry (Squealer)
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Heartcore (Verve)